Assembly woman Brenda Bustamante stepped from the taxi onto Market Street in the Castro District. The rainbow flag rippled and waved like a proud declaration atop a pole above the gay metropolis. San Fransisco was a long way from Brenda’s hometown of Bakersfield, and the Castro further still, when it came to politics and lifestyles.
The cool spring breeze lifted the lapels of her blazer and swept her auburn hair off her face. She gazed across the street to her destination, a place she didn’t want even the cab driver to know.
Since that night, at her best friend’s son’s graduation party when she ate from the wrong—or in her case, the right—batch of brownies and wrapped several in a napkin for later, she drove home, staggered into bed and for the first time in years fell into a fathomless sleep for almost eight hours. Best of all, she woke up without a hangover, unlike the pills her doctor had prescribed. With her intense workload and ambitions for higher office, sleep was crucial. After talking with Tony, she decided that edible marijuana was the answer, and with a medical license, it was legal. She drove all the way from Bakersfield to the central coast to get her permit. If her constituents back home knew, even the more liberal ones, they might vote her out of office.
She had never smoked, cautioned her three daughters about cigarettes and drugs. She did have one addiction, sweets, especially cookies and cake.
Brenda found a cure for her insomnia. And gosh darn it—she had every right to buy it.
She waited at the crosswalk. Her research, the knowledge of all aspects of cannabis, made her aware of the medicinal benefits. When she went online to Weedmap, she found more marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks in the city. Further information revealed the best places to buy edibles were in the Castro.
Brenda had one day to purchase her medicine and drive to her apartment in Sacramento.
She passed young men and women in the crosswalk wearing T-shirts, jeans, and Giants baseball caps. Before going into politics, they reminded her of her students at Cal State, Bakersfield. No different, except that the men held hands with each other, and so did the women. There were heterosexual partners with children, and, at the bus stop, an older Asian couple quarreled as the breeze carried a notion of how close she was to the sea.
She recalled that ugly time during Prop 8 when yellow signs blotted homes and church lawns. It sickened Brenda how people’s ignorance incited fear.
So, when marriage equality became the law in California, she rode in a float as grand marshal in the Pride Parade. Her three girls cheered and waved rainbow and American flags as she passed by sitting on a bale of hay in a restored 1930 yellow Ford pick-up truck waving to the spectators. She never imagined being in a parade could be so much fun.
Brenda headed toward the building with a neon green cross and a black awning with gold lettering that read: Leaves of Grass: An Apothecary.
By the open door stood a security guard with a tattoo circling up his neck.
“Rip offs!” a man yelled.
The guard stepped in front of the door.
“You can buy this shit for twenty bucks at the corner of Hayes and Pierce. Rip-offs! Suckers!” The man staggered away.
Noise from trolley buses and cars clanked over metal plates that covered wide tracts in the street. Passersby chatted on phones. A homeless girl foraged through a trash bin. One man picked up after his dog. The brisk air currents rushed through the city washing it clean, except for the mad and the hungry. As a politician, Brenda felt responsible. Driven by obligation, she saw herself as a statesman, and forced herself to be ruthless toward her goals.
“I need to see your permit,” the guard said.
Brenda reached inside her purse. Her fingers fumbled for the paper. Excited by the unfamiliar, she pulled it out and steadied her hand to keep the paper from shaking.
“Go on in.”
The smell of dried cannabis overwhelmed her. She knew what marijuana smelled like, but this was more pungent, like a crop that had just been harvested.
“Is this your first time here?” asked a young man standing behind a narrow counter in the foyer.
“Yes.” She glanced around the dispensary. A mural of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, and cable cars circled the windowless, but well-lit store. Glass counter showcases lined both walls with shelves holding hundreds of jars of cannabis. Vintage medical cabinets interspersed between the counters combined the old with the modern. Stairs led up to a loft. The place appeared organized, clean, no bongs or paraphernalia that she’d heard about in the funky head shops of the 1960s. The employees were young and clear eyed.
“I need to see your certificate and license.”
Brenda pulled the documents from her purse.
“You’ll need to fill out some paperwork,” he said, handing her a form.
It instructed her to keep all cannabis out of the reach of children and away from pets. Never drive when using. Upon purchase, store in the trunk of the car.
She signed her name.
“You can go in now.”
Brenda hesitated, unsure of where to go.
A young woman approached her. She wore a close-cropped Afro and held an iPad.
“My name is Venus. Can I help you, ma’am?”
“Yes,” Brenda said. “Thank you.” She relaxed.
“What’s your medical condition?”
“I have insomnia. But I don’t want to smoke.”
“Our solutions and edibles are upstairs. Follow me.”
They went up the steps to a room where the words Do anything, but let it produce joy. Walt Whitman were painted on the back wall in a flowing script. A glass-enclosed counter with shelves of assorted foods, an antique cabinet, and a refrigerator in the corner took up most of the space.
“Carrot cake? Is that what that is?” Brenda asked peering into a shelf.
“Yes,” Venus said, resting a hand on Brenda’s shoulder. “But only eat a sliver, or it will send you on a vacation you hadn’t planned.” Venus went behind the counter.
Brenda smiled. “No, I wouldn’t want that. Is it fresh?”
“All our pastries are.”
“I’ll have several pieces of the carrot cake.”
“I’ll cut them into slivers. You can store what you don’t eat in the freezer.”
“And the muffins?” Brenda asked.
“Banana or pumpkin.”
“Both. I’ll need enough to last me several weeks.”
“Okay, but cut them into quarters. I’ll give you a printout of all the directions.” Venus typed on her iPad then went behind the counter.
Brenda gazed down at the first floor.
In walked a man who looked like her distant cousin, State Senator Ray Bakar, right down to the Stetson, cowboy boots, vest, and beer gut hanging over his turquoise belt buckle.
“What about lemonade and tea. We have cocoa, too?” Venus asked.
“Plenty of each,” Brenda said. She looked down at the man in the cowboy hat. He was a match for her cousin on the Basque side of the family. But it would be inconceivable for Bakar, a gay-bashing family values hardliner, to be in a cannabis dispensary and preposterous for her adversary to be in the Castro. But then, no one would believe she’d be there either.
“Since you’ll be medicating at night, how about decaffeinated tea?” Venus asked.
“That would be perfect.”
Brenda stared below. The man took off his hat, and mopped his bald head with a
bandana. “Oh, my God,” Brenda whispered. It was Ray!
With her eyes on her cousin, she reached inside her purse for the phone. Turning away from Venus, she held the camera at her waist and snapped several pictures.
“I parked along a side street, is there a back exit?”
“Only for emergencies.”
Perhaps she could slip past Bakar without him seeing her. “Do I pay here?”
“No. Downstairs.” Venus went to the cabinet. “You bought a lot so we’ll give you a Leaves of Grass carrier bag.” She opened the cabinet door and took out a black bag with gold lettering and a sketch of Walt Whitman.
Brenda had her hand on the railing when a man walked in, went up to Bakar and kissed him on the lips. She gasped. Astonished. She covered her mouth and braced herself against the railing.
Brenda glanced around the store, for cameras, for anyone who might catch her. Like a gunslinger, she reached for her phone and filmed the two men as they nuzzled and held hands.
The conservative back-slapper, the ranter—“Save our children from the perverts!”— liked men and was a pot user himself.
His hypocrisy appalled her.
Brenda tucked the phone in her purse. Her discovery cast tremendous possibilities. She could expose him. Ruin his career. Or, use him.
She watched, floored by the tender way he caressed and kissed his boyfriend’s hand. His manner was so unlike the brash cousin she knew.
What she witnessed was a man recklessly being himself. The pathos brought back memories of when Ray’s older brother died of AIDS. The community shunned his family. Ray and his younger brother endured beatings and bullying. Then, in his junior year, Ray shot up to six foot three. The intimidation stopped. He joined the debate team and discovered a talent for wrangling.
Now she knew why Ray never married. “Too busy!” he announced. “Spend all my time working for my constituents.” He became a respected figure in Kern County and a persuasive speaker, even if what he said was drivel. Although the insight brought compassion, Brenda found him a coward.
“It’s ready,” Venus said, holding the Walt Whitman bag.
They went down the stairs. Brenda thought about her own deceit, traveling four hours and spending the night at a hotel to buy marijuana.
With her eyes on her cousin, she stepped onto the landing. He leaned against the counter, next to his boyfriend with his arm around his waist. So natural. How long had they been together?
She walked over to the register, paid for her medicine, and thanked Venus for helping her.
In seven years as a politician Brenda had learned to shovel manure and throw it on opportunity. A vote for her bill, equal pay for women, came up at the end of the week. Now, she had something to fight with. As her youngest daughter would say, sweet!
She strolled up to Bakar holding the handles of her bag. “Hello Ray,” she said as if she had run into him at the county fair.
His arm snapped to his side. He gaped at her. His round face a fluctuation of red, crimson then scarlet.
He never called her that. He was as phony as Frank Underwood.
“I’d never take you for a pothead.”
“I’m not,” she said. “The THC helps me sleep. Is that why you’re here, Ray?” she asked. “Because you can’t sleep at night? I can understand why.”
She held out her hand to Ray’s boyfriend who looked like a much younger version of Ray minus the cowboy getup. “I’m Brenda Bustamante, a cousin of Ray’s.”
He glanced at Bakar. “Yeah, Ray’s mentioned you. I’m Martin.”
They shook hands.
“I’ll meet you outside, Ray,” Brenda said.
She left the dispensary.
Gusts of wind rustled her paper bag. Leaves drifted from the tree-lined street. She remembered a closed sign in a photo shop with a recessed doorway and an awning.
Brenda went up the street and waited.
Bakar walked toward her, his swagger replaced with hunched shoulders. His face sagged like a sack of guilt. He was a real grizzly, wide as a side of beef. When they’d meet in the halls of the state capitol, his deep voice bellowed out arguments to stress his opinions. She tried to have an exchange, but Ray never took a breath. He had the lungs of a whale.
Now it was her turn to talk.
He stood next to her in the doorway facing the street. “No one will believe you. It’s your word against mine.”
“I filmed you with Martin. I took pictures, too.”
He sucked his teeth. She felt his anger roll off of him like a tumbleweed. He took a step forward, snatched his hat in his hand and whipped it across his thigh.
Brenda didn’t flinch but her heart did. She remained poised in the hollow of the entrance, watching as he lumbered down the street, stop, and pace. She wondered how he could hurt so many people to protect his lie.
Ray adjusted his hat, gave a yank to his vest, looped his thumbs in his pant pockets, and came toward her.
“What’s it gonna cost me?”
“You’re going to vote for my bill. And persuade two other senators to vote for it.”
“I vote for your bill, they’d all know something is up.”
“Oh please, Ray. You can come up with a reason.”
“I’m dead if I vote for that bill.”
“You’re more dead if they find out you’re gay.” She had him. But he was still family. “I remember the hell you went through when Mike died. The way you and Larry were picked on.”
“Oh, Jesus, Brenda,” he said, turning away. “Do you have to bring that up?”
“Isn’t that the crux of it? The hiding?”
He confronted her. “You aren’t? You came all the way from home to buy pot in the Castro. You could have at least ditched the pumps and the pressed slacks for jeans and tennis shoes.”
That was true. She was prone to overdress, but what a jerk. “You’re a phony, Ray.”
“So are you.”
“I should come out and tell my story,” Brenda said. “It could help others. But don’t think you can spin what I saw. I’ll send the film and the pictures of you and Martin to the press. I’ll post it on Facebook. You vote for it, Friday. And get me two more votes. That’s all I need. Cousin or not, I’ll expose you.”
He crossed his arms and loomed over her. “I could come out before Friday. Then you’d never get the vote.”
“Do that. I’ll still send the pictures to the press. Everyone will know why you came out.”
They both remained silent in the alcove of the doorway. The wind hissed. Buses and cars sputtered down Market. A woman’s laughter floated on the air like notes from a musical instrument. The sun was half above the hills; the other half descended toward the sea. Brenda shared the moment with her cousin, a moment so charged it became a noise all its own.
At last, he looked at her. She expected anger; instead she saw sorrow. “Your family was always kind to us, not like the others.” His voice just above a whisper. He stared
across the street at the shopping center. “I had cancer. I’m okay, now. Forty years old.
I’ve lost all my hair, high blood pressure, yup.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Ray. I want my girls,” Brenda said, “all women, to have the same rights, the same pay for doing what men do.”
Ray listened. He shifted his weight. Hitched his shoulders. Crossed his arms.
“If you choose to come out, you’d have the support of my family. I promise. If you don’t choose to come out, and you get my bill passed, I’ll never ask for another favor. You have my word.”
“The vote’s only five days away. What happens if I vote for it but can’t get the two other votes?”
“People owe you, you have power, charm them. You can get two votes.”
“But if I can’t.”
“Then the deal’s off.”
Ray snickered, then exhaled through his mouth.
“You know, Ray, during that horrible time,” Brenda said, “I remembered your mom, how she went to the PTA and told them to help stop the bullying. What she must have gone through, losing her eldest boy and then treated like an outcast.” She took a step closer to her cousin. “When they cut your father’s hours, your mom took a job. Bet she didn’t even make minimum wage.”
“She was the heart of my life,” Ray said.
Brenda lowered her gaze. She now knew how hard it was for him to be honest.
Martin came toward them holding a white paper bag. His shaved head along with his beard started to grow a five o’clock stubble. His expression vacillated between concern and hope. “Can I join you?” he asked with a lopsided smile.
“Of course you can,” Brenda said.
Martin looked at Ray. “You were always worried you’d be outed. You’re lucky it was your cousin.” He glanced at Brenda’s bag. “You must’ve bought a lot to get a Walt Whitman Bag.”
Brenda smiled. “I don’t like to smoke and I have a weakness for sweets.”
“Did you get the carrot cake?”
“I got a chocolate chip cookie,” Martin said. “I’m getting fat. But they have a genius baker.”
“I’m hungry,” Brenda said.
“Me too. Cafe La Folie is just down the street.” Martin gestured in the direction where the rainbow flag brandished its colors at the foothills of San Francisco. “They have the best crème brûlée.”
“I like it with a really thick crust,” Brenda said. “You know, where it’s hard to crack.”
“Let’s have dinner. I’ll save us a table on the patio.” Martin took off.
“He’s a nice young man.”
“Yup, he’s a keeper.”
“Let’s go break some crème brûlée.”
“Ah, I need to lose weight.”
“We all do. What else is new? C’mon Ray,” Brenda said, taking his arm.