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IN THE TOWN follows Miles, a struggling yet aspiring radio producer and lover of weed, as he balances friendship, purpose and community in Oakland’s vibrant and heavily politicized queer community of color. Read part three below. (Click here if you missed parts one and two).

As soon as Miles stepped out of the Lyft, the gravity of what was about to happen hit him like a ton of bricks. Time seemed to slow down and he grew keenly aware of the forceful chill of the autumn wind swirling about his thin frame.

“Oh gosh, are we really about to do this?” Miles thought out loud.

“We? This all you boo,” Zeba laughed before noticing the hesitation in Miles’ furrowed brow. “Aw, I’m just kidding, love. We’re almost done. You’re gonna look so good,” she encouraged.

Miles reluctantly accepted her words and crossed the street. Juan lived in a north Oakland two-story apartment building, situated in the middle of a busy block and lined with modest cottage-like homes. The neighborhood’s demographics were steadily shifting as well, though there still remained a substantial number of residents of color.

Zeba and Miles slowly crept up the steps to the second floor deck of Juan’s apartment, overlooking the peach and gold sunset in the background.

The door was unlocked; Juan knew they would be arriving soon. Miles and Zeba peeked into the living room and found Juan sprawled across the wooden futon couch donning a floral-print, flowing night gown and watching World Star videos of wypipo fighting—her favorite pastime.

“Oh my gosh, you’re so ratchet girl,” Miles exclaimed, surprising Juanita. Juan was a non-binary Translatina, and sometimes went by Juanita to friends, a nickname gifted to her by Miles. Miles and Juan had known each other since college at Northwestern, but grew extremely close when Miles’ move to the Bay.

“Jesus, girl, you scared me!” Juan screeched. “How you doin’ bish?” she greeted the duo with exaggerated refined double kisses on the cheek and a warm hug.

“All good, shawty,” Zeba replied. “Well for me at least. Miles is a little worried about what’s about to go down,” she shifted her eyes in Miles’ direction.

Aww hunty, come here Milesy. You’ll be in good hands. My baby’s got you as soon as he gets back from the store. But don’t get too comfortable, bish. Hands off my man,” Juan said, failing to successfully console Miles.

Miles laughed off Juan’s territorial claims. “I’m only freaking out a little bit. We just need to talk about something else and I’ll be good,” Miles advised.

“Well,” Juan began, never one to shy away from attention, “I officially am too old for partying. I lost my keys in the club after you left. Since my roommate wasn’t home I had to call my landlord to let me in at 5am, girl. And he definitely reminded me that we’re a month behind in rent,” Juan shared.

“Geez, and I thought I had it tough,” Miles responded.

“Actually, you do. Because I’m gonna need that thousand I loaned you last month to pay this rent,” Juan notified Miles. Miles hadn’t forgotten about the money he owed Juan. He just wanted to avoid it as long as he possibly could.

“Damn. This isn’t what I meant when I suggested a change of topic,” Miles responded in a daze. Fortunately, he knew his parents could loan him the money. He was saving that card for a rainy day. He just didn’t realize that day would come so soon.

“I know, girl. You have a minute though. Won’t need it till the end of the month,” Juan reassured Miles.

“I guess that’s something. Honestly feels like I’m one life emergency away from bankruptcy,” Miles bemoaned.

“Aw, honey,” Zeba rubbed Miles’ back. “Well, I can change the topic. I’m also having housing problems. Ugh,” she sighed.

“You and the rest of the Bay. What’s the tea, girl?” Juanita inquired as they brought two glasses of water to the living room for Miles and Zeba.

“I guess. White neighbor causing drama and I feel like I’m gonna have to confront him soon. But I’d rather avoid it. I just want it to go away. I want HIM to go away,” she declared exhaustedly. “Fortunately, Sur made me a potion to prepare me for a battle. I hope that’ll help.”

“Potions are cute. I need to get more into my bruja shit. And Sur knows all about that. Tapping into that indigenous power. That’s my bish,” Juan said, adding cheer to the space. It pleased Miles to know that his friends got along so well.

“Honey, estoy aqui,” a not-so-distant voice shouted as the door slammed shut. It was Sebastian, Juan’s partner.

Hola Osito,” Juan greeted Sebas and kissed him on the cheek.

Sebastian was a tall, stout brown man, with hair covering every part of his body except for his bald head. He carried the biggest smile on his face everywhere he went, and insisted on greeting everyone with a bear hug.

“Is this my client?” Sebas asked, hovering over Zeba’s tiny body.

“No way! That’s this one. I’m Zeba,” she stuck out her hand, but was met with an overwhelming hug that lifted her one foot in the air.

Yeesh,” Zeba replied. “Warning next time, maybe,” she chuckled as she returned to seat.

Miles noticed Sebas was coming his way. “Careful, homie. I may just explode with fear,” Miles warned. Sebastian paid no mind. His enormous stature engulfed Miles with a hug, bringing a reluctant smile to his face. “Thanks, I guess I needed that.”

“No worries, man. So how you feelin’? You ready for a tongue ring?” Sebastian propositioned Miles.

“Um, what?” Miles responded in annoyed confusion. “I’m getting a nose ring, Juan!” Miles noticed the couple laughing at his reaction. “Ha ha,” Miles said with sarcasm.

“Don’t worry, hermano, I’m just fuckin’ with you. This will be chill. You’ll hardly feel it. It’s more like a long pinch,” Sebas advised.

“Long pinch? Okay, I can do that. Beauty is pain, right?” Miles replied.

“For you maybe. Not for queens like myself,” Juanita joked. Since transitioning, she was full glam 99 percent of the time. Her lip was always deep red, her jewelry gaudy, and her dresses full couture. She also donned a full beard and was determined to present her own brand of femininity.

“I have an idea. Let’s take some tequila shots to warm up. Zeba, I hear you’re a DJ. Wanna hit us with some tunes?” Sebastian directed the room.

Yezzir, I got you,” Zeba replied excitedly. She had not-so-secret aspirations of becoming a DJ one day, and often graced her café patrons with carefully crafted playlists. Trap music was her specialty.

“I’m recovering from a hangover and somehow this still sounds like a good idea,” Juanita chimed in, as she made her way to the kitchen to prep the drinks.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Miles said with hesitation. Everything was moving so quickly in his high haze. Miles rarely drank alcohol and tequila was at the bottom of his list. “Should we be drinking? More importantly, should you be drinking?” directing his gaze towards Sebas. “Don’t you need to…you know…focus?” Miles struggled expressing himself.

“Don’t fret, hermano. I could do this with my eyes closed. Besides, you’re too tense. You must loosen up. Trust me,” Sebas responded.

The warm tone of Sebastian’s voice soothed Miles’ concerns. He could see why Juan was so smitten. He decided to give in to the tequila and downed the shot before he could think about it.

“Okay, let’s do this. Have a seat, hermano,” Sebastian guided Miles to his makeshift piercing station.

Miles slowly stood up and made his way to the hot seat. “Thought It Was A Drought,” a song by Miles’ favorite trap rapper, Future, had begun to stream from the speakers, instantly putting him at ease.

While seated, Miles’ eyes nervously followed Sebastian’s every move as he pulled out his piercing kit and procured a thin curved metal needle, about four inches long. Miles’ face froze at the sight of the needle, which Sebas gently sanitized.

“Where about do you want it to go?” Sebas inquired with a sharpie in hand.

“Right here,” Miles pointed to a freckle in the center of his left nostril. Miles could feel his chest tensing and palms sweating. However, Future’s soothing, slightly robotic voice drew Miles’ focus.

I just fucked yo bitch in some Gucci flip flops.

 Miles closed his eyes and began tapping his feet the beat.

I just had some bitches and I made them lip lock.

 “You got this baby,” Zeba encouraged in the background. But Miles continued breathing, deeply focusing on the music. He sang along to the lyrics.

I just took a piss and I seen codine coming out,” he whispered to himself.

Juan must have noticed because she decided to distract Miles by singing: “We got purple Activis, I thought it was a drought!” Miles giggled, his eyes still shut.

Right before Sebas went in for the kill, Miles heard a jingle in the background.

“Hello?” Zeba answered her phone. It was her neighbor, yet again. “Why is this such a big deal? It’s just cat meows,” she quipped.

“Okay man, on the count of three. You ready?” Sebas asked.

“Let’s just do this,” Miles blurted out. The pressure was killing him.

“One, two—,”

“EEEE!” Miles screeched. I thought you said you’d do it on three!” he yelled at Sebas as he glanced over to the mirror, realizing his piercing was complete.

Suddenly overcome with joy, Miles jumped up, marched towards Zeba and grabbed her phone.

“Listen homie. I’ve been hearing about you and this cat bullshit all day. Are you really going to call the police on a Black woman’s cat? You’re kidding yourself. No one said anything last Monday when you were masturbating so loudly we heard it in Zeba’s apartment. Yeah, the walls are thin. So, if you wanna play this game, we can do it. Let’s go,” Miles demanded, feeling himself.

“MILES!” Zeba snatched the phone from his hands. He didn’t mean to speak so frankly. The adrenaline was to blame.

“He’s right. You have a problem. Learn to masturbate in silence and stop policing my pussy!” Zeba said with command and hung up the phone.

“Yessss! See, she just needed a push,” said Miles, giving Zeba a high-five. “And look at my nose! It’s so pretty,” Miles exclaimed while showing off his new nose ring to the room.

“DJ, turn that music up!” Juan directed Zeba, who willingly complied, quickly queuing Beyoncé’s “Sorry.”

“Ah, exactly what I needed. Let me just take off this sweater,” Miles said as the room began to bounce.

GAAAAHHHH!” he yelled, with his sweater stuck on top of his head. He was moving so quickly that the sweater halfway yanked out the nose ring.

“Oh, yeah. Hermano, you’re gonna want to be careful with that,” Sebas advised, pushing the ring back into Miles sore nose.

“Yeah, that much is clear now,” Miles responded in a whimpering low voice.

“Well team, I just want to say thank you all for working so hard to make this dream of mine happen,” Miles shared. They all rolled their eyes and continued dancing to the beat. “And as a reward, I have weed. Amen and you’re welcome.”

They all gathered round as Miles took one more hit. His last for the night. For real this time.

Marrion Johnson is a Black, queer storyteller and communications strategist based out of Oakland, California. Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Marrion uses storytelling to speak to the complex realities facing Black communities, including displacement, queer and trans identities and Black joy. Marrion has called Oakland home for two years now, but Chicago will always be where his heart is.