Mark Doty's Esta Noche and Who the Hell Am I Anyway?

This is a slightly-confessional piece I wrote for a college assignment. We picked poems and wrote responses. I chose to get too personal with mine.

"Esta Noche" by Mark Doty

In a dress with a black tulip’s sheen
    la fabulosa Lola enters, late, mounts the stairs
to the plywood platform, and begs whoever runs
    the wobbling spot to turn the lights down

to something flattering. When they halo her
    with a petal-toned gel, she sets to haranguing,
shifting in and out of two languages like gowns
    or genders to please have a little respect

for the girls, flashing the one entrancing
    and unavoidable gap in the center of her upper teeth.
And when the cellophane drop goes black,
    a new spot coronas her in a wig

fit for the end of a century,
    and she tosses back her hair—risky gesture—
and raises her arms like a widow in a blood tragedy,
    all will and black lace, and lipsyncs "You and Me

against the World." She’s a man
    you wouldn’t look twice at in street clothes,
two hundred pounds of hard living, the gap in her smile
    sadly narrative—but she’s a monument,   

in the mysterious permission of the dress.
    This is Esta Noche, a Latin drag bar in the Mission,
its black door a gap in the face
    of a battered wall. All over the neighborhood

storefront windows show all night
    shrined hats and gloves, wedding dresses,
First Communion’s frothing lace:
    gowns of perfection and commencement,

fixed promises glowing. In the dress
    the color of the spaces between streetlamps
Lola stands unassailable, the dress
    in which she is in the largest sense

fabulous: a lesson, a criticism and colossus
    of gender, all fire and irony. Her spine’s
perfectly erect, only her fluid hands moving
    and her head turned slightly to one side.

She hosts the pageant, Wednesdays and Saturdays,
    and men come in from the streets, the trains,
and the repair shops, lean together to rank
    the artifice of the awkward or lovely

Lola welcomes onto the stage: Victoria, Elena,
    Francie, lamé pumps and stockings and always
the rippling night pulled down over broad shoulders
    and flounced around the hips, liquid,

the black silk of esta noche
    proving that perfection and beauty are so alien
they almost never touch. Tonight, she says,
    put it on. The costume is license

and calling. She says you could wear the whole damn
    black sky and all its spangles. It’s the only night
we have to stand on. Put it on,
    it’s the only thing we have to wear.


I always felt cheated for people not letting me be myself. When I was five, my parents dressed me up in a papery blue shirt and neat kakhi shorts and took me to church. I could handle the first hour. I sang in the choir and watched Bible characters move around on the felt boards in Sunday school. 

The second hour, when I sat through adult church, was unbearable. The shorts would chafe my legs and I always had to go to the bathroom and the chairs were too hard and I didn’t like standing up so long for the hymns. I felt stifled. 

I’d squawk and kick and breathe heavy to get my parents’ attention until my Dad would hiss at me to be quiet and deal with it. I always looked forward to unclipping my bow-tie and changing out my Sunday best for my Aladdin tank top and purple shorts. They were much more comfortable.

When I turned seven my parents left our house in New Mexico and started doing deputation to raise money for missions work overseas. We lived in a big van with shutters and a TV in the back, moving from city to city, speaking at church services, staying with relatives in the area. I’d wake with the sunlight bleeding through the shutters, my face pressed against the window. 

Every week my Dad drove the family to more early morning services, old diabetic deacons and good-natured twentysomethings who would pinch mine and my brother’s cheeks. I never knew which state we were in or where we would go next. My home waited overseas in some hazy ideal full of the alien and the strange.

And when I got there it didn’t feel like home at all. It was just another place. We lived on the edge of a large rice patty and I dressed in a school uniform that itched in the heat. I sat around during lunches not talking to anyone because I wasn’t really there. Why should I make temporary friends? After a few months of language school, my parents packed up and took us to another island, where my Dad flew airplanes and we climbed trees in the backyard after school.


Years later we came back to America and stayed with my grandparents. I grew two more chins and read Animorphs and The Neverending Story in the elementary school hall while my classmates made fun of me, called me fat and a faggot for reading. It was my first cold winter, so my parents bought me a thick green jacket padded with down. I wore it every day. Buttoned it up so my paunch wouldn’t show so much. 

Winter changed to spring, and then to summer, and I still wore that coat. I wouldn’t take it off. I could laugh and not worry about anyone seeing my belly. I’m pretty sure I mowed several acres lawn wearing that coat. But then it started to smell bad. Something had started growing in it. After careful inspection, my parents had to peel it off me and throw it away.

In my mind, I still look just like I did the day they threw out the coat. You aren’t born with an identity. You wrap it around yourself as the years pass. You take one off, put another one on. Maybe you’re a feminist or gay or a jock or a Republican, or a log cabin feminist who just happens to play football. Maybe you’re a jerk no matter what label you assume. Maybe you’re the nicest guy anyone will ever meet, encased in a woman's body. Or maybe, like me, you’re still the same shivering, awkward kid from fifth grade who read too many books, who just wants a coat to hide inside.