Anatomy of an Evening
For most of the evening, I’d been trying to put the moves on an older man with a bald head. He appreciated the attention but was far too preoccupied to be pulled away from the action. While I tried to play coquette, minus the fluttering eyelashes, his body language pulled his skinny form farther and farther downward to the floor. Not interested. Not interested.
He was there for the distraction only, a means to escape, mostly. An hour into my effort, I heard a familiar story about an ex-wife and two children. Such men always lived in the shadow of past attempts to live in the straight world. Likely he kept in touch with all vestiges of years of denial. As I normally do, I nodded sympathetically in time at all the right places. He still wasn’t going to go home with me.
What’s eating away you? I’d identified the problem, but he wasn’t ready to confront it. He bristled at the suggestion, but wasn’t going to dignify the remark with a response.
Realizing that shameless flirtation was doing me no good, I removed my legs from around his. They had been neither discouraged, nor encouraged. To my immediate left was a means to drown my sorrows, but for some reason resorting to alcohol would mean admitting to defeat. I would not be stopped.
At least I felt attractive. I was quite proud of my new gray sweater. Though the rules and laws of fashion usually left me stupefied, I had been complimented tonight already multiple times. Even so, words of praise had sometimes taken backhanded form. I’d been told by one observer that I might be pretty but I smoked like a broad, with my right elbow planted upright against the table. Being compared to a woman had never offended me before and it wasn’t going to now.
A profoundly silly group of other men my age filed past. They were slyly mocking me. If I was a more profane person, they would have received an obscene gesture. Because there was nothing especially menacing about any aspect, I stuck my tongue out in response.
The process of seduction had turned out to be very difficult and I was appropriately annoyed. A chain-smoker even in the best of times, I’d blown through most of a pack in two and a half hours. I’d soon need to buy another, even though the club tended to inflate prices dramatically from what could be purchased two blocks down the street.
Leaving wasn’t difficult in the physical sense, but the pink armbands draped across wrists spoke for themselves. The convenience store workers had a reputation for being less than tolerant. It wasn’t what was said, but the way the seller sort of threw the pack at you across a spotless, smooth counter. If you were sharp, you caught it before it careened away, headed in the vicinity of the dirty floor mat.
In those days, I thought being gay meant acting the part. To my credit, I was a quick study. One wouldn’t have thought I was really an actor in character. Gay bars are usually full of strangers and brief encounters. I won’t tell if you won’t tell. This is just our little secret.
The bolder ones establish their reputations, usually by their substance abuse issues and exhibitionism. They tend to have incongruous or effeminate nicknames and gleefully pull all interested parties into the bathroom for show and tell. To them, all bodily piercings, regardless of location are meant to be shared.
But if you ask me, some body parts were never meant to be lanced, regardless of artful presentation.
From behind me, I heard a drawly female voice calling my name. Startled, I whirled around 180 degrees. The voice belonged to a friend, Meredith.
Nothing doing, huh?
She smiled knowingly, exhaling smoke upwards towards the ceiling. I knew she could blow smoke rings like a professional, if you asked her to do it.
I shrugged. She gestured towards the stool next to her, imploring me to join her. Meredith clung to the dark corners. She was here merely as a casual observer. A poet, she came here for ideas and inspiration. For her, it was comforting to be around other gay people, even if they were usually dramatic and self-absorbed. Meredith fancied herself a slightly more stable reflection of the average club goer.
Her girlfriends never went to such places. Nor did they ever make the trip with her. They usually frequented faculty poetry readings or coffee shops. In the meantime, Meredith possessed a dark, warmly twisted sense of humor. Usually, she patronized the clientele with a comedic sense of smugness, one that I always appreciated.
Possom’s after his latest adolescent conquest, it seems. He certainly doesn’t give up easily.
What else is new? I’m impressed at his stamina.
Possom was one of the bitchier queens. He had given fifteen years of faithful service to the makeup counter at a department store. Now pushing forty, he tended to pursue the cute college aged boys who often made up a substantial share of the Saturday night crowd. He was my opposite in almost every way. I envied him only because he could dance. Defying the stereotype, I couldn’t dance to save my life.
Meredith would drag me onto the floor, but only after I was at least a little drunk and surrounded on all sides. If you do it that way you aren’t under the microscope of over lookers. She was the only one allowed to exploit my insecurities, ever, for any reason. She moved like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, following the beat, and I followed her lead. I’d repressed my Southern drawl as best I could, but sometimes it had a way of appearing when least wanted.
Meredith had a strong Walker County accent. Her people had mined coal for generations in the ugliest possible fashion, stripping layer by layer away from a seam in the ground. She was simultaneously proud of her heritage and deeply ashamed of it, the way I was myself to an extent.
Tonight I’d put on one of my best efforts and it’d all been for naught. I saw him now rise from the table I’d just left and hug someone who’d only just worked his way through the crowd. They appeared to be friends. Two weeks later I walked by him, submerged in a throng of animated, slightly sweaty men, and he’d ignored me. No one said I was pursuing stability. There was an element of sleaze never far away, but for a while I courted it. Danger or the possibility of it holds a strong appeal for many.
Somewhat earlier, I’d originally tried to hang out with a group of total flamers. One of them, liquored up or on something else abruptly told me one evening that he liked tough guys. I wasn’t sure if that was a reflection or a come on, but it touched a sore spot with me. I never wanted to be the physical size I was or present the way I did. In a gay context, it made me too masculine for many and a purely a fetish for others. The attention I got here was from men who had once held an impossible infatuation for someone straight.
Often, I was their stand in, their substitute. For me, heterosexual was the last thing I wanted. I liked my boys as feminine as could be. The fantasies I entertained never included being placed in situations where I had no hope of consummating my obsessions and fixations. Dreams were meant to be realized. Several female friends who pursued unattainable men reminded me of this very same attitude, as evidenced by their own conduct. They wanted a safe, relatively painless release that promised no hurt feelings or potential for getting burned.
In keeping with this plan, they developed romantic feelings for men they could never have, constructing a rich, but ultimately frustrating fantasy life. And I was one of them. Exasperated, but understanding, I always pushed them to strive for someone they could call their very own. A few listened to me, but many did not. I will concede that vulnerability is never easy for any of us, but also that we are to an extent in charge of our own fate.
Women easily fell for me. This could be seen by some as a great tragedy, and perhaps it was. When I picked up on all the same signs, I deliberately minced around, limp wristed, making sure that there would be no misunderstanding. But, as I’ve noted before, my basic nature was to remain inscrutable and officially androgynous. Having to explain myself on a frequent basis got very old and often I resented that an extra effort appeared to always be so necessary.
The world’s most annoying lesbian couple made their entrance walking forward through the dank, smoky front room. I’d seen them at the generic, queer friendly alternative pianist concert a few weeks before. They sat two rows up from me, very nearly in each other’s laps.
The both of them were loud and cooed over each other, speaking of promises of lifelong fidelity and inevitable plans to adopt a baby together from China. I was annoyed by the spectacle but I cynically knew where they were headed. I’d seen more than a few lesbian breakups over the course of my life.
For the sake of posterity, I’d been casually jotting down the names of each song as it was performed. Little did I know that in the process I was being observed by the as yet unseen.
A little twink sitting an aisle back reached forwards towards my shoulder blades, touching me lightly.
Are you making a setlist?
I nodded. He’d written down an e-mail address on notebook paper. In immaculate script he had jotted down what was apparently his nickname. Ben Eats Crayons. I couldn’t help but laugh. Like right now at the club, it reminded me of the products of this saturated universe where queer was the default. If I wanted points for purity, I’d liked this artist a long time before the rest of the community had embraced her as an icon.
What a strange term, “The Community”. It said everything and nothing at once.
For example, “gay icon” to me always seemed to emphasize popularity at the expense of quality. Though I loathed Cher, I’d been to a couple of her concerts, because that’s where everyone went. And when I went to wash my hands, I’d overheard fifty voices sharing the same salacious and tragic fact. Due to years of plastic surgery, Cher’s face no longer moved when she sang or smiled.
I had a love/hate relationship with this club, much as I did with gay culture™. When I’d come out, shortly before I started college, I’d believed in the fantasy. Surely this venue would be a never-ending source of sexual partners. I hadn’t wagered that the banality of barflies in the gay community was very similar to what one found in the straight community. Here, I’d found more people who were willing to sell me drugs than to assent to hook up with me.
In the South, even the queers are football fans. On Saturday nights like tonight I noticed that the one television over the bar was turned to the game. Even more strangely, people were watching it with rapt attention. At its conclusion, the set was switched to something appropriately trivial and vapid. The void was filled by the jukebox, whose one redeeming characteristic beyond bad pop music was David Bowie. I made sure to arrive early, ensuring that the entire greatest hits were played before anyone could put on Savage Garden or Britney Spears before me.
The older gay men always appreciated the gesture, while those my age milled around, hands on hips, nonplussed. What was this stuff? Who listened to it? To them, gay might have been a place to shop, a store where everyone bought the same things. I could conform to a standard I royally disliked any day. Why play by another exacting set of rules?
Meredith presented her new cell phone number by ripping the cover off of a used book of matches. It was the only writing surface she could find. She drank heavily and always took one back along with a napkin and two red straws. In this respect, she was predictable.
Hearkening back to the days where being closeted was imperative, no address, phone number, or identifying markers were found. Instead, a large yellow raised uppercase letter was shown, which showed up well against the black background. I palmed the number and resumed staring out at the boy Possum had been after most of the night.
No one could accuse him of having bad taste. This one, however, was a little out of my league.