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Fiction – “Drag Queen Astronaut” by Sandra McDonald

“Drag Queen Astronaut” made the Honor List for the
2010 James Tiptree Jr. Award!


On the fourth day of Artemis 3′s manned mission to the moon, while early morning America watched two of its astronauts investigate an alien ship buried under the lunar surface, a live video feed from the orbiting command module captured the third crewmember in an unguarded moment. That astronaut was a tall black man who had earned his navy aviator wings and a PhD in Aeronautical Engineering during two decades in the military. He was floating around the capsule in a red push-up bra and lacy red panties, with black fishnet stockings stretched from thigh to toe.

That astronaut was me.

Most of us have been humiliated in public – kid throwing a tantrum, clothing undone or on backwards, dropping your lunch tray in school. My three minutes of infamy bounced via a comm satellite to Mission Control, where it was initially witnessed by only a handful of technicians. They thought it was some kind of prank. One of them violated his security clearance by downloading a copy and forwarding it to a friend, who forwarded it to another friend. Within three hours the first clips started streaming on the net in vivid and excruciating detail. My wife’s cell phone began to ring incessantly. My son James Jr., thirteen years old, was in History class when his classmates started downloading it on their smart phones. In computer lab, they bullied him to a screen and made him watch the whole clip. They called me a sissy, fag and Drag Queen: words like acid flung into his face.

By evening, NASA had an entirely unexpected public relations problem. The media wanted to know less about the derelict alien ship buried in the moon – that was our mission, investigate Big X in the hills of Fra Mauro – and more about the astronaut wearing women’s underwear.

I knew nothing about it. Once my crewmates Gary Hobbs and Scott Stevenson returned from the moon – as with all other missions, they hadn’t achieved much – we slingshot home in a cocoon of carefully controlled communications. Trudy and I chatted once, but never did she say, “Honey, the whole world is laughing at you in your bra.” The reporters who asked live questions were, unbeknownst to any of us, heavily censored. Gary played his godawful country music, Scott stunk up the capsule with some truly awful farts, and meanwhile I was the subject of a rising sea of electronic condemnation. Some people called for tolerance (“Fashion doesn’t make the spaceman”), but a lot more demanded my immediate resignation and military court martial.

We landed in the Pacific on target, pissing our pants during re-entry. Got pulled out of the drink by a destroyer several hundred miles from Hawaii. Champagne flowed. Three hours later, after I was medically cleared, an admiral with a scowl pulled me into a cabin to say, “Commander, there was a slight problem with your video feed. Now the whole world knows you like to wear women’s underwear.”

***

True story: back when I was in high school, some idiot shot at a bus carrying the Cleveland Indians baseball team to the airport. The single bullet pierced the bus and struck a rookie pitcher in the leg. He was only mildly injured. Part of that was sheer luck and part of it was the fact he was wearing sturdy white cheerleader’s boots. Along with the rest of a cheerleading uniform – the flared skirt, the tight white top, an underwire bra. The team explained that it was all part of a hazing ritual and the reporters laughed along with the joke, ha ha ha. The guy was a great athlete, but after all that media attention his career sputtered. He played only one year in Major League Baseball before being sent back to the minor leagues. He ended up as a pretty good college coach.

There are no college coach opportunities at NASA.

***

The first press conference was held in Hawaii. You can look at the recording for yourself. The reporters are like rabid puppies, barely able to sit in their seats.

“Can you explain–”

“Why is it–”

“Commander Truax, what were you thinking?”

I look embarrassed in an “aw-shucks” kind of way, my hand caught in the cookie jar. Gary, wearing his cowboy hat (NASA hated it, but the media loved it) is the one who offers a shit-eating grin for the folks at home.

“Ain’t any of you ever lost a bet?” Gary drawls.

Scott is smiling, too, but in a tight uncomfortable way. He doesn’t look at Gary or me during the entire press conference. Just a bet, Gary repeats, and I keep up the Aw Shucks routine, and that’s what you get, boys, when you take the World Series too seriously, let’s talk about the Big X.

Aw Shucks. Look at me on that recording: I’m smiling, and ducking my head, and meanwhile the flames on my face have traveled inward to tiniest atoms in my body; I’m burning alive, and will be forever.

***

You have to spend all your training years in a bunker to miss out on the stories – gossip about astronauts flying drunk (investigated but never proven), about sex in space (alleged, unsubstantiated, but sooner or later someone’s going to try), about all sorts of things that no one can ever prove or disprove and so they linger like bedbugs. According to some people, a Columbia astronaut came back from fourteen days in space to divorce papers delivered by the NASA chaplain. His wife had read his emails while he was in orbit and found out about his stripper girlfriend. I wasn’t able to talk to Trudy before the Hawaii press conference and so I headed off to the family room completely open to the idea my married life was over, demolished, destroyed.

But there she was, clutching her coffee cup like a lifeline. She was wearing a white summer dress and thin white sandals, and her toenails were painted pink. It’s hard to say about the rest, because I could barely look at her face.

“James,” she said, in a flat tone unlike any I’d ever heard from her before.

“Hey, Dad.” Jimmy gave me a quick hug around the middle, a sweaty and halfhearted effort. I barely got my hand on his head – small kid, growing up too fast – before he ducked away. “There’s a big cake over there.”

“Get your father some,” Trudy said, and Jimmy happily fled.

The table of coffee and sweets was set up on the other side of the room, alongside sliding glass doors where the white sun glare made the outside world disappear. Gary and his family were plopping down on a big black sofa, his twin girls already fighting over who got to sit in his lap, his wife magnificent in her big red Texas hair and bright blue pantsuit. Scott and his wife, a thin reed of a woman in a beige dress, were kissing while their Yorkshire terrier barked at his feet. The big TV on the wall was replaying footage of the destroyer hauling the capsule out of the Pacific.

An astronaut’s wife gives up years of her life worrying about all the things that can go wrong on a mission. She lays awake at night thinking: Apollo 1. Challenger. Columbia. About your kids seeing their father or mother die in the clouds. That’s what happened with those Challenger children – Mike Smith’s kids screaming in the stands just seventy-three seconds after launch. My whole career has been about keeping experimental planes in the sky, and every time we lost a friend or co-worker, a new line appeared in the crease between Trudy’s eyes. Now that crease was the Grand Canyon.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

She shifted her gaze to the TV. “Have you gotten any sleep?”

“Some. You?”

“Sure.”

Jimmy came back with cake, the white and red frosting shaped like a rocketship. He sat on the sofa as far way from me as possible, his hands tugging on the knees of his black pants, his shoulders hunched toward his ears. Your dad’s a fag, they’d said. Sissy. You wearing girl’s underwear, too? You better show us.

I wasn’t the only one on fire.

***

Joe Santalupo, our Chief Astronaut, wouldn’t meet my eyes. “What the hell, Jim? Tell me they made you do it, some kind of hazing or racial thing – whatever. Just don’t tell me you did it of your own free will.”

I was sitting as stiffly as a man can sit, stuck in a chair that must have been made back in the 1950′s – steel arms, blue-gray padding, uncomfortable as hell. The windows in his office looked down over the green marshes of Cape Kennedy. “You know what happened, Joe. I lost a bet.”

Joe tapped his mechanical pencil. The desk blotter was covered with a sea of tiny dots, like a Rorschach test only he could make sense of. “You can’t stay. They’re going to send you back to the Navy, and they’re going to shove you in a desk job somewhere, and congratulations. You just won a nice quiet life with your family.”

“I’m not going.” This was the answer I’d rehearsed on the flight in – military, not civilian, and who knows what fresh hell it would have been to be recognized as the person who the media had now ridiculously and inaccurately dubbed the Drag Queen Astronaut. “It was just for laughs.”

Like the time Alan Shepherd presented a gallon-sized vat filled with ammonia and yellow dye as his urine sample for the Gemini program doctors. Wally Schirra did the same thing to a nurse, except he used apple juice. One Apollo mission radioed in a UFO to Mission Control. John Young once smuggled up a contraband corned beef sandwich, which pissed off the techs who feared tiny bits of meat jamming million-dollar equipment.

Joe’s pencil made another series of dots on the blotter. “No one’s laughing, Jim.”

So that’s how I lost Artemis 6, the mission I was scheduled to command. Lost my astronaut appointment. Gary put up a fight for me, as did some good friends I can’t begin to thank, but astronauts have been fired for less: ask old-timers about Apollo 7, when the ill crew refused to follow piddly orders from Capcom and lost their careers over it.

The first person I saw after getting my termination letter was Scott Stevenson, who’d been ducking me since our return to earth. I knew through other people that he blamed me for forever sullying our mission. We’d always be the Flight of the Transvestite – in books, on the internet, in our obituaries.

“I guess they had no choice,” was all he said.

NASA shoved me right out the door and forgot all about me.

Until the day they desperately needed me. But that came later.

***

It wasn’t until my second night home back in Houston that Trudy sat beside me on the sofa and asked, “Where’d they come from?”

I’d been pretending to watch a documentary. Something about glaciers and ice. I was hoping it would quench the relentless burning along my skin and down the column of my spine. Unfortunately, you can watch ice and not be touched by it; gaze at endless white, and still see only red.

“What?” I asked.

“Who bought the lingerie?”

Gary got it from his mistress, a dental hygienist with a thing for astronauts. Or bought it in a department store, saying it was a gift. A nice store, top of the line, from a pretty young salesgirl just a few days on the job. Or a cheap store, dollar bins, factory imports that wouldn’t last more than one rinse in the washing machine. Or maybe Gary bought it, saying it was for his wife, but then dangled it in front of me in front of the guys, said, “Come on, Jimmy boy, gotta pay up sixty miles above the moon.”

“Does it matter?”

Her gaze was on the glaciers. “Where is it now?”

Which was a good question. Every astronaut gets a Personal Preference Kit for any special items – rosaries, religious medals, gifts for the spouse and kids. The PPKs that journeyed to the moon and back with us should have already been returned.

“I’ll double check,” I said.

Trudy nodded very slightly. “I want them. What you wore. Are there any more in the house?”

“Of course not. It was just one bet. ”

Another tiny nod. On the screen, an enormous glacier shelf was disintegrating into enormous shards. Suddenly I wasn’t sure if this was a documentary at all. More likely it was a disaster movie, one curiously devoid of people but full of special effects and a sentimental soundtrack. We had the best kind of TV that you can buy and the best sound system the store technicians could install, but there was no filter on what was true and what was fiction.

Trudy said, “You need to talk to your son. I blocked every site I could think of on his computer, but he’s getting filthy emails and messages. From strangers, from classmates. I complained to the school but they say they can’t do anything. Bullshit. I just want to—I want to hunt them all down and cut them into pieces, but I can’t, and you can’t. But you have to fix this.”

“Okay,” I said, amazed. Not about the email. John Glenn came home in 1962 to bulging sacks of congratulations and admiration. My own inbox was a disaster pile of hatred, mockery, pleas for interviews, requests for cross-dressing tips. That Trudy – patient Trudy, peaceful Trudy, a woman who had never uttered a threat in her entire life even when people threw racial slurs her way – that Trudy could sit on our sofa and think about killing people was unfathomable.

After the glaciers melted and the seas rose to flood coastal cities everywhere (it was a movie after all, it seems), I knocked on my son’s door. He was sitting in bed, hunched over a portable game console, surrounded by technology and his own interests.

“Your mom says you’ve been getting messages. About me.”

He shrugged one shoulder.

“You should just delete them. They’re trash.”

The game console beeped. Jimmy’s thumbs made furious taps. Whatever quest for redemption or game of destruction on his screen, it was a hundred times more interesting than his shame-inducing father.

“Okay,” he said.

“You should know–” I wasn’t sure how to finish the sentence. “It’s just something that happens. We do stupid things for bad reasons.”

“Dad.”

“It won’t happen again.”

“I know.”

Tap, tap, tap. He kept playing his game, and I went to my cold bed.

***

Customs and rituals from the British Navy, passed down to all its daughter navies including ours: a ship crossing the equator becomes a floating festival of cross-dressing sailors who force the uninitiated, also called pollywogs, to eat uncooked eggs, have their hair cut, crawl through piles of rotting garbage, sit still for spankings and dousings of hot sauce, and eventually beg for mercy from King Neptune, played by one of the senior crew members. Wogs are often dressed in women’s underwear, of course. After the ordeal, which can last two days, they are rewarded with certificates and new status as “shellbacks,” which allows them to initiate others in the next crossing.

To try and abstain from the ceremonies is considered to be an indication you are not a team player, and can result in unofficial repercussions for months if not years afterward.

This is not hazing, of course. This is tradition.

***

Military life, post Drag-Queen: We were transferred to Point Magu in California, to an E-2 squadron where I had nothing to do but ride a desk until early retirement. My official job description meant nothing. I was there to show up on time, move paper from an in-box to an out-box, and keep my mouth shut.

The base was nice, the people friendly. No one seemed to particularly mind my Flight of the Fishnet Stockings. Except for those who quietly and not-so-quietly did. Because you can’t kill something on the internet, not when there are people determined to keep it alive with email, blogs, postcards, letters, video remixes. After the initial round of cocktail parties and barbecues faded, Trudy and I were essentially outcasts. Too many people looked at me and saw red lace. They looked at her and saw a woman too weak to leave her obviously perverted husband. At school, other kids picked fights with Jimmy. Trudy talked about home schooling.

“It’s probably for the best,” I said.

“Can’t you get mad about it?”

She wanted emotion from me. She wanted me to fight. But fight what? Nothing I said or did now was going to get me back into space. Under no conceivable circumstance was I going to bounce across the lunar landscape and knock on Big X’s hull. Any corpses in there were never going to be mine to find, and any secrets would belong to someone else.

Three months after starting home schooling, Trudy said, “I want to take Jimmy to Ohio and stay there.”

“Okay. I’ll join you when my retirement comes through.”

“That’s not what I had in mind.”

Charlie Chaplin. Buster Keaton. The Three Stooges. Sir Alec Guinness. Cary Grant. Bob Hope. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. Tim Curry. Tom Hanks. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Dustin Hoffman. Johnny Depp. Robin Williams and Martin Lawrence. They all dressed like women, but for entertainment purposes only.

Make ‘em laugh, boys. Make ‘em laugh.

***

Some days I received email full of profanities and promises that I was going to burn in hell. Other days, messages from boys who wanted to wear their sisters’ nightgowns, from men who put on their wives’ dresses whenever they had an hour or two alone. Those were the letters I kept. Never answered, but kept. Messages of confusion and anguish, of shame that burned bone deep, of secrets that had to be ruthlessly squashed lest they lead to a father’s fists, a son’s scorn, a wife moving out and not returning your calls anymore. A man who dressed like a woman in public could be assaulted in America, killed in other countries. Of all our frontiers, that one still had a violent boundary.

As proof, every few months an anonymous enemy sent an 8×10 glossy photo of a male blow-up doll wearing lingerie just like I wore on Artemis. The real items had been lost with my PPK – floating somewhere in the Pacific, I’d been told, though I suspected it had been deliberately misplaced. The doll was always suffering some indignity in a public place – butt-fucked by a tree branch in a park, shit on by a dog on a stretch of white beach, lying on a picnic bench with private parts hooked up to jumper cables. The photos had no notes attached, but none were needed.

They were disturbing not only because of the imagery but because whoever sent them was putting a lot of time and effort into not letting me forget what had happened. I did think they all came from one person, but maybe not – the postmarks were scattered across the United States. The base police couldn’t help, and a private detective I hired found nothing he could trace.

I was opening my mail to the latest picture when Petty Officer Linlay appeared in my doorway. He was a scarecrow of a sailor, tall and gangly, who’d had the bad luck to get assigned to me. “Sir?” he asked

“Yes, Linlay?”

He fidgeted. “Just so you know, people are idiots.”

Such as whoever had used a Sharpie to write “Drag Queen” on the outside of my locker at the base gym last week. Or whoever had tied a fishnet stocking to my windshield wiper yesterday, while my car sat unguarded for five hours in the parking lot.

“I figured that out,” I told Linlay.

This time the blow-up doll was suffering its latest indignity in what looked like the middle of an outdoor food court. It had one carrot shoved into its mouth and another up its rear. The fishnet stockings had developed a rip since the last photo, and the red bra was looking dingy and worn.

“Thing is, a lot more guys are in your boat than they want to admit,” Linlay said, looking past my shoulder to the bare wall behind my desk. You’re not supposed to have a bare wall in your military office. It’s for trophies and souvenirs. “Whatever someone wants to wear at home, it’s no one else’s business, that’s what I say.”

He wasn’t married, Linlay. He didn’t have to share a closet, dresser or laundry room with anyone.

I wondered what he wore at night to bed. What he was wearing under his uniform right now.

I was quiet too long. Linlay whirled away from the door, shoulders stiff. “Never mind. It’s none of my business.”

The blow up doll was looking deflated. Plastic can only take so much abuse.

***

Another true story. When I was a college freshman at the University of Central Florida, an entire fraternity got disbanded because of an on-campus hazing incident. Police arrived after midnight on a pleasant October night and immediately heard screams, moans, and weeping. Inside the frat house they found pledges covered with urine and vomit. The boys – just teenagers, all of them, just a few months out of high school – had been forced to drink until they were unconscious. Many of them were wearing women’s panties, rainbow-colored wigs or soiled diapers. And fairy wings, all pink and gossamer.

At Guantanamo Bay and the Abu-Ghraib prison, American interrogators forced some prisoners to don women’s panties or wear them on their heads.

Men make other men wear women’s underwear to humiliate them. To demonstrate and wield power.

But what about men who put it on voluntarily?

***

The phone rang two years after I moved to Cambridge to teach at MIT.

“Big X is singing,” Gary said. “She wants you.”

I might have fallen off the treadmill in my bedroom. Certainly I stumbled so badly I had to hit the emergency stop button. “Say that again.”

“She started talking eight hours ago. Sent an invitation. I’m not supposed to be telling you, Jesus. But the civilians are going to crack the code sooner or later. They want you to come visit. Do you understand? Something is alive on that ship and wants you to drop by for tea.”

“Who else?”

He was silent.

“Gary, who else?”

“Just you. Ask for a big raise when the White House calls you,” Gary said. “Backdated. And tell them you want me to pilot the capsule.”

“The President’s not going to call me.”

The White House called six hours later.

He was an old man, President Holliwell, elected on a popular tide but not with my vote. He would have happily kept the US space program in mothballs but Big X had changed that six years ago with her monthly broadcasts of an automated SOS signal.

“Son, whatever qualms you have, I completely understand,” the old man said. “The circumstances under which you left the space program were regrettable and hasty. Now’s the time to clear your name and your record. Tell me that stepping on the moon to meet some bug-eyed aliens is not the culmination of any astronaut’s dreams.”

Of course it was. Any idiot knew that. And for a brief sweet flash I saw myself back in the capsule, thundering skyward, sailing across a quarter million miles of void to the biggest, most beautiful place in the nighttime sky. Whatever was inside Big X had chosen me from every other human on earth. It was enough to make any head swell. Whatever I did, whatever happened, would be documented for all the world to see.

At the same time I thought of Petty Officer Linlay, and all those emails from mixed-up young men, and the wife and son I’d never get back.

“Sir, I can’t go to the moon. Not without…”

“Not without what? Name it.”

“Not without telling the truth, sir.”

***

My name is Commander James Truax. Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve been fascinated by women’s clothing. For fun, relaxation, and whenever I’m under great periods of stress, I dress up in women’s underwear like many other heterosexual men do. It was an error in judgment for me to indulge in this habit while I was alone on the command module on day four of Artemis 3, but nothing I did endangered my crewmates or the mission. I compounded this mistake by saying I had lost a wager and was paying up what was due. There never was any bet. My principal regret, however, is the pain and suffering this caused my family and my co-workers. I apologize to them. Deeply.

Did your wife know about your habits, Commander Truax?

I respect my wife’s privacy on this.

Have you sought psychological counseling?

I don’t believe there’s anything to seek counseling about. I think a man or woman should be able to dress anyway they please.

How do your NASA coworkers feel about your revelation?

Let’s just say they’re too focused on our next mission to Big X to worry about what I’m wearing under my slacks.

Why do you think the aliens chose you?

What are you wearing under your slacks?

Where do you like to shop for lingerie?

***

A week before the launch, I came back to my temporary quarters in Cocoa Beach to find Scott Stevenson standing outside my front door. He’d gotten drenched in the afternoon rainstorm, as had the rolling suitcase sitting at his feet.

“Hey, Jim,” he said, as if we’d just casually run across each other in a meeting.

I invited him in because whatever he wanted to say, it didn’t have to be in the steamy sun now drying up the pavement. Once inside, he punched me in the face so hard I staggered against the nearest wall. My face screamed in pain and my vision turned watery. I clutched for anything to use as a weapon but he didn’t try to hit me again. Instead he dropped both hands and shook his head.

“Asshole,” he said. “Sit down.”

I dropped onto my sofa with both hands trying to hold my face together. Already it felt like it was going to swell and distort, but maybe nothing was broken. I heard Scott rummage around in my freezer and cabinets. A moment later he returned with a Ziploc bag of ice.

He said, “I been promising to do that since we landed.”

The ice numbed only part of the pain. “Fuck you.”

“My dad called me the day after that press conference in Hawaii,” Scott continued, sitting in the armchair across from me. “My seventy-three year old father said, ‘Did that pervert molest you?’ His biggest source of pride in his life, his son the astronaut, and everyone else in the nursing home is talking about the sissy in the girl’s underwear.”

My vision was clearing now, but not enough for me to tell if he had a gun or other weapon on him. I’d known him once, or thought I did. We’d made an amazing trip under difficult circumstances that neither of us would ever forget. But he was a stranger now.

“You think I molested you while you were sleeping? In a space capsule?”

Scott snorted. “Of course not. But that’s what kept my dad awake at night. You took the best thing in his life and my life and pissed on it. Why?”

For weeks I’d been explaining why to chatty women hosts and metrosexual male anchors. Maybe Scott didn’t watch morning TV.

“It’s just something I do,” I said. “To relax.”

“Well, I’m glad you were relaxed on the mission,” he said sarcastically. “You know where I was? Banging on the hull of that goddamned ship. Risking my life on the moon. Then she sends an invitation, and who does it go to? You.”

I wanted to tell Scott that I was sorry. That his years of hard work weren’t going to pay off the way he’d always planned, that his ideas about who people were and how they should be weren’t going to be rewarded. But I wasn’t going to. My face hurt and my pride hurt and I still wasn’t sure if I was going to be dead in a few minutes.

He might have figured that out anyway, because abruptly he stood. His wet pants had left the chair damp. As he trudged to the door I said, “Take your suitcase.”

“It’s yours,” he said. “Gary and I had fun, all this time. What a joke.”

Inside the bag were the faded, torn remains of a blow-up doll wearing my lingerie from Artemis 3.

***

My name is Commander James Truax. Many of you know me as the Drag Queen Astronaut. I’ve reached the alien ship in Fra Maura safely and have been welcomed inside.

Greetings, they say. Greetings to you all in your varied splendor.


.

About the Author

Sandra McDonald is the author of three science fiction novels and the recent gender-bending collection Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories. Her work has appeared in several magazines and anthologies including Asimov’s Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, and Strange Horizons. During her career people have paid her to be a military officer, Hollywood assistant, and college instructor. You can read more about her at www.sandramcdonald.com.

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