I was completely intimidated the first time my roommate, Peter, bugged me about joining the gym where he worked out. He was a Greek god, an actual model who looked like one of those unreal men on the cover of the magazines I definitely never looked at every time I passed them in the grocery store. Peter worked out twice a day and coached other people in their workouts for another three or four hours. I hadn’t ever met anyone with a body like his, and it was such a waste, especially since we lived together, because he was straight.
Never mind that I thought I was straight too. Yes, I know. I’d had hot man-sex twice and couldn’t get the images of Joseph out of my mind, especially as I lay awake at night wishing his warmth was beside me, but I wanted to be straight.
So I was. For the moment. I thought.
The third or fourth—or tenth—time Peter asked me to go to the gym and start working out, I gave in. I was that skinny kid. You know, the one who could never gain weight. My mom cooked buttery fried goodness most nights, and we drank sweet tea so thick it could give you a cavity just looking at it. It didn’t matter. I could eat anything and never gain a pound.
As strange as that might seem to those who struggle with losing weight, I was insecure about my bean-pole-ness and intimidated by all the perfect people I imagined seeing lifting small houses at the gym. Peter said I should be thankful. He said I had “the perfect body type” for adding muscle, and he was sure he could turn me into something hot if I just put in the work.
It sounded like a lot of work to me.
I tossed my fear and childhood insecurities aside and followed muscle-god roomie like a lost puppy to the gym. It was pretty much what I expected—men with necks bigger than their heads lifting small houses. They tended to congregate in the section with warnings about not lifting too much without a partner. They weren’t just big. They were huge.
Oddly, they were very nice. Every single Popeye acknowledged me with a smile or nod, as if greeting a new brother into their fraternity. I hadn’t expected that.
By the third or fourth week, when it became obvious I wasn’t going to be one of those guys who paid for the membership and never returned, the muscle gods learned my name and greeted me warmly. They offered to spot me and gave me a high-five when I did something particularly painful. It was nice, in a really masochistic way.
One afternoon, I was straining with all my spindly might and noticed a guy I hadn’t seen before. He was running on a treadmill. I blinked through sweat and focused. Blondish-brown hair bounced as he ran, though a few locks stuck to his forehead. He wore a thirsty white tank top that drank every drop of sweat it touched and clung to a ridiculous set of abs. His shoulders glistened as they bobbed. Every time he smiled at a different person who called out his name, his brilliant white teeth lit up that corner of the gym.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but you get the picture.
Despite his obvious sweat-soaked hotness, Mr. Sweaty Runner caught my eye because every few minutes, a different club member would wander up to him and shake his hand or wave or call out in greeting. Nashville was a town where half the people you met were either students or aspiring musicians. I’d become numb to that scene, and barely kept up with who was famous and who wasn’t. I had no clue who this very popular hottie was.
Peter smacked the back of my head playfully, pulling me back to our side of the gym.
“Enough rest. You’ve been sitting there for at least five minutes. Let’s go.”
I wanted to toss the weights at him, but that would’ve required lifting them and he would’ve won, so I asked about hottie instead. “Is that guy up there famous or something? Everybody seems to know him.”
Peter grunted. “Yeah, he’s a singer, or wants to be. Nice enough guy. Welcome to Nashville.”
With that, Peter grabbed my wrists and hoisted them to the bar dangling over my head, giving me no choice but to resume the lat-straining-torture-thing.
Don’t hurt yourself on all my technical terms. I try to be precise.
– # –
A week passed, and I saw Singer Boy at the gym nearly every day, his flock of women—and men—trailing him from treadmill to bicep curl, trying to look like they weren’t following his every move. It was pretty funny to watch. When one of his loyal geese would catch me watching, their head would whip in the other direction, and they’d magically find the need to work a random body part not on that day’s rotation.
Singer Boy never seemed to notice. He just kept working out and flashing his pearly whites.
Peter and I got to the gym late Friday afternoon. Singer Boy had already showered and changed into tight, faded jeans and a clingy black T-shirt. The black made his green eyes leap out. Holy cow, they were really green.
I had just finished a set on the leg-press-device-of-death when someone walked up to Peter. I was facing the wall and couldn’t see who it was.
“Hey, Peter. I’ve got a gig tonight at Rowdie’s. A big producer promised he’d be there, so I really need a good crowd. Can I count you in?”
There was a crinkling of paper, probably a flyer.
“I’ll try,” Peter said in a tone I knew meant he wouldn’t go anywhere near Rowdie’s.
“Thanks. This could be my big break if it works out. It’s been a long time coming.”
“Good luck,” Peter said, followed by the distinct sound of paper being stuffed into a pocket. He turned back to me. “Again. Two more sets.”
I hated Peter sometimes.
An hour later, I staggered into our apartment, thighs ablaze with leg-day pain, and threw myself onto the couch. Peter trotted in without the slightest hint of soreness.
Again with the hating Peter thing.
He tossed his keys on the counter, then emptied his pockets. I looked up.
“What’s that?” I asked, indicating the wadded-up paper he’d dropped by his keys.
He hurled the wad into my head. “That wannabe-famous guy at the gym is playing some bar tonight. He says there’s a producer going, and it might be his big break. Same story, different night.”
That got my attention. “Are you going?”
He laughed. “Nope. I hate bars. Go if you want to. I don’t think he cares who’s there, just that there’s a crowd.”
I stared blankly. I’d never been to a bar. Weren’t they the den of evil and the birthplace of sin? People drank alcohol there. I’d never had alcohol either.
Did you forget already? I was raised by wolves.
“That’s OK. Bars aren’t my thing either,” I said weakly, wanting desperately to see Singer Boy in his element and find out if bars were really as vile as I had been taught.
“Whatever. I’m meeting Jen for a late bite. We might grab a movie after. See you later.”
Jen was Peter’s on-and-off girlfriend. At the moment, she was on.
As soon as the door slammed shut and Peter’s footfalls faded into the night, I smoothed the flyer against my leg and held it up. Singer Boy’s set started in an hour.
I had to move.
– # –
I walked into Rowdie’s and blinked a few times so my eyes could adjust to the dim light. The aroma of cigarettes tickled my nose. There were ten, maybe fifteen round high-top tables scattered about, with a brightly lit, makeshift stage holding court from one end of the room. From the flyer and Singer Boy’s perma-smile at the gym, I had expected the place to be packed. I was the fifth person to enter. Only seven total would show up. So much for a roaring crowd.
I looked nervously around and picked a table near the back, as far from the stage and other people as I could get. A perky waitress wandered by and giggled when I ordered a Coke. Was that not OK in a bar?
A moment later, Coke in hand, my eyes darted from stage to bar, taking in every detail. This den of ill repute seemed awfully tame. People weren’t humping or fighting. They were just sitting and drinking, some eating, enjoying themselves. Interesting.
“Mind if I sit with you?” A voice startled me.
I looked up to find a man with short dark hair and kind eyes blinking at me. His short crop revealed a faint dusting of gray that intruded around his temples.
“I’m Dwayne,” he said, extending a hand. Were we supposed to shake hands in a bar? Was this a business thing? I shook it, and he sat without waiting for permission. “Thanks. I hate sitting up front at these things. How do you know Jason?”
For the second time, I was startled. “Jason?”
“The singer. He’s supposed to start any minute, but he’s always late.” He chuckled.
Singer Boy’s name was Jason. Check.
“Oh, I don’t really know him. We work out at the same gym. He was making the rounds today, handing out these flyers, and I thought I’d check it out.” I tried to sound disinterested and casual.
Dwayne looked down at the flyer I had tossed on the table and smiled. “I helped him make those. He’s definitely not shy.”
Before I could answer, Jason raced up to our table and wrapped Dwayne in a big hug. “Thank you for coming. I’m so nervous.” His head swiveled as he scanned the room. “Mr. Best isn’t here yet, but he promised he’d come. Dwayne, this could be the night.”
He sounded giddy. I guess that was to be expected. Back then, there was no American Idol or The Voice, or any other competition show that vaulted unknown artists into stardom. To be discovered, you had to actually be discovered. It was nearly impossible. If I had been a singer with a shot at a producer, I would’ve been giddy too.
Dwayne finally turned and introduced me. I reminded Jason about the gym, and he nodded as if he actually remembered seeing me among his throng. He clearly didn’t. Then he vanished to prepare for his time on stage.
I caught Dwane watching the interaction with more than passing interest. I guess my stare lingered on Jason’s jeans a little too long as he walked away, because he said, “You like him?”
Startle number three.
“Uh, I guess. I mean, um, I don’t know him or anything. He seems like a nice guy.” I was articulate.
Dwayne chuckled and peered over his glass of Jack and Coke. A second glass filled with limes sat next to it. He would squeeze a lime into his drink after every sip; there had to be as much lime in there as there was Coke. Was this normal bar behavior? No one else seemed to be doing it. Weird.
Thankfully, the stage lights flashed as Jason stepped up to the mic, saving me from further examination. I got the feeling Dwayne didn’t miss much.
Jason sounded good. I mean, really good.
He played guitar and sang songs he’d written himself. When Dwayne told me he would perform his own work, I’d groaned inwardly, expecting a long evening of bad music. But this guy had talent. He sang about love and loss, and lost love, and love he wished he hadn’t lost, and love he was glad he lost—then a song about a lake in a town where he met someone he loved and lost.
My keen sense of observation picked up a theme, but it still sounded good.
The more I watched and listened, the better he looked.
What was it about performers, especially singers, that made them so much more alluring the minute they stepped behind a microphone? Jason didn’t get all dressed up or wear makeup or anything, but on that stage, under the annoyingly bright lights zip-tied to the bar’s ceiling, he looked even better than he had in the gym that first day. Now that his hair wasn’t a sweaty, matted mess, I could see how it curled slightly at the ends and waved in the air from the vent above the stage. It wasn’t quite Marilyn and her white dress, but it was nice.
He was dreamy, and he was singing.
A couple times he actually looked over at our table and flashed that broad, incredibly warm smile I’d seen him give others a hundred times at the gym. I tried not to swoon, then realized he was smiling at Dwayne, acknowledging his friend and some secret meaning hidden within the tune.
For his part, Dwayne barely spoke throughout the evening, but I caught him watching me a few times, a catlike grin playing across his weathered face.
When Jason wrapped and the stage finally fell quiet, the lights in the bar gradually brightened. Dwayne stifled a yawn into his elbow and looked up. “What did you think?”
“He’s great. I’m surprised he hasn’t got a record deal yet,” I said.
Dwayne laughed sardonically. “That’s the dream, but he’s been doing this for years. I think if it was going to happen, it would’ve by now.”
“What about the producer tonight?”
He shook his head. “Never showed. Again, that happens all the time. They promise, get the performer all excited, then stand them up. It’s sad, really.”
“Huh.” I’d never known anyone trying to make it in music. This was news to me.
Dwayne yawned again. “There’s a group of us going out after this. You should join us.”
It was already eleven o’clock. Where could anyone possibly go at that hour on a Friday night? I was baffled.
It must’ve shown on my face because Dwayne chuckled. His eyes held that amused, knowing gaze of one who’d discovered a baby learning to walk—or at least realizing that walking was a thing. I hadn’t even tried to stand yet, much less walk.
“It’s just a few of us going to celebrate with Jason on his big performance. We were going to celebrate the producer, but he’s still AWOL. Come have a drink.”
“Alright. I guess.” I didn’t even think to ask where we were going. If it was to have a drink, I assumed another bar. My first night was turning into a two-fer. Look at me, becoming a Coke-drinking barfly stud.
Jason stopped by and gave Dwayne another hug. He sure hugged a lot. He acknowledged me with a quick smile and thanked me for coming. I don’t think he remembered my name or how we knew each other—again. So much for validation.
I climbed into Betty, my cooler-than-cool Saturn sedan, and followed Dwayne’s eight-hundred-year-old Toyota something-or-other. It was small, zippy, and thoroughly covered in rust—but who was I to judge? It was easy to follow because nothing else looked like it.
We drove for twenty minutes before I realized I was thoroughly lost. I’d never been in this part of town before. It was one of those industrial parks with long, low, sprawling buildings. From an airplane’s view, they almost looked like bugs, with all the trailers pulled up to the loading docks serving as legs. Were we going to a warehouse? Who’d put a bar all the way out here?
We finally pulled into a massive parking lot. There were hundreds of cars already cooling. I looked for signage or anything that might tell me where we were, but there was nothing. The building before us was as nondescript as every other factory or warehouse around, save for the line of a dozen people waiting to enter.
I parked and found Dwayne waiting for me near the entrance.
“Ready? The others already went inside. We’ll meet up in the country bar.”
“Country bar?” I asked.
He nodded. “This is more of a complex than a bar. You’ll see.”
We waited our turn. I tried not to wince as the doorman held out a palm and said, “Welcome to the Connection. Five bucks.”
Ever-observant Dwayne noticed and waved me off, paying my fee. “My invite, my treat.”
That was nice.
As we entered, my head spun. We walked through giant double doors into a wide hallway that could squeeze a dozen people shoulder to shoulder without touching the sides. It was packed. We could barely move, and the mass of quickly heating bodies was inching forward. A thunderous rhythm pulsed from somewhere ahead, and I could make out flashes of light through an opening thirty or so yards away.
We got about halfway down the hallway when Dwayne grabbed my arm and pulled me through an opening on the left side. The booming bass was replaced by a happy, twangy tune better played in a Western movie than a bar in the industrial heart of Nashville. The crowd thinned, and tight-fitting T-shirts and tank tops were replaced by gaudy buckles and fringy tops with silver buttons. Walking through that opening, we literally set foot onto a different planet, one filled with country music and very country patrons.
“What do you want to drink?” Dwayne’s voice snapped me back to him.
He shook his head and chuckled. “Come help me. I’ll need an extra hand.”
I followed and waited with him in the queue that was only a few men deep. As we stood there, something struck, and I turned to Dwayne. “Where are all the women?”
He looked up at me with a furrowed brow. “What?”
“The women. I don’t see any in here. Looks like some of the guys had to dance with each other because there aren’t any girls here yet.”
In that moment, Dwayne gave me a look I’ll never forget. His eyes flew wide, and his mouth twitched between a smile and a frozen ‘O’ shape, as if he couldn’t decide—or believe—what was standing in front of him. Maybe it was what I asked, or maybe I had something in my teeth. I’d never seen anyone look so utterly baffled.
Then he doubled over and gripped his sides.
When he righted himself, tears were streaming down his cheeks. He saw me gaping, and his laughter grew into near hyperventilation. Some of the guys standing around us turned to see what was so funny. I shrugged, dumbfounded.
By the time he managed to suck in enough air to breathe again, we stood before a bemused bartender wearing a foot-tall cowboy hat and leather vest. He’d forgotten his shirt; a furry, muscular chest poked through.
Dwayne turned to me and wiped his eyes. “You’re going to need a real drink tonight. Trust me, Coke isn’t going to cut it.”
I helped Dwayne carry the two glasses filled with limes and three brimming with Jack and Coke to a table on the outside patio. The night was cool and comfortable, and the patio was much quieter than anywhere we’d been in the Connection so far. It was a relief to sit and have a little personal space again.
Dwayne hadn’t stopped chuckling to himself. He’d said something to the bartender, whom he obviously knew well, and Cowboy Rick nearly peed himself before pouring our drinks.
I wasn’t sure I was ready to know the joke, but curiosity got the best of me. “Care to share what’s so funny?”
He looked up, eyes twinkling. “Why don’t you take a good sip of that drink first?”
I’d only ever tasted wine once. It had been five years ago in Australia. I was there at the National Scout Jamboree representing the United States, along with two thousand other Boy Scouts.
Don’t laugh. It was a really cool trip.
Anyway, the French scouts, Fleur-de-something, had homemade wine and were passing out samples. I hadn’t even noticed when my best friend handed me a cup and I took a sip. I gagged so hard I thought I’d spew all over France. It was awful and tasted like a soured version of whatever drink it used to be.
Yes, I know, that was the point. At the time, I didn’t even know I was drinking wine, much less what to expect. It was vile.
And here I sat, with a man twice my age in a bar without women—with men dancing together to country music—about to drink hard liquor. The two-fer just became a hat trick.
Yes, hockey reference. Just roll with it.
I lifted the glass and looked at it with deep suspicion, as if a snake might leap out from behind the ice cubes and snap at my nose. I didn’t mean to give Dwayne puppy-dog eyes, but when I looked up, there was a mix of amusement and pity in his gaze.
“Michael, this is a gay bar.”
I downed half my drink in one swallow.
“Whoa. Easy. They make them strong here,” he said with genuine concern.
I finished the drink and looked up. “Gay bar?”
Before tonight, I’d never been to a bar of any kind. I didn’t know the gays had their own bars.
He nodded silently and watched as the color drained from my face.
A moment later, he asked, “You didn’t know we were coming to a gay bar?”
I didn’t trust my voice, so I just shook my head and tried not to make eye contact with the guy at the next table who kept staring at me.
“I need another drink.” I stood before Dwayne could say anything. Thankfully, there was only one person ahead of me at the bar. I had time to gather my wits, but not long enough to be alone in a gay bar without my life raft, if that’s what Dwayne was.
“You came. Dwayne said you might.”
I turned and was shocked to see Jason leaning against the bar. He’d changed from the outfit he’d worn on stage into a tight white T-shirt with the name of some band I didn’t recognize scrawled in script across his chest. I could see the definition of his pecs through the lettering.
“Uh. Yeah. I’m here,” I spluttered. “Um. You sounded good tonight.”
“Thanks. Stupid producer stood me up, but I’m used to that now.” He waved at the bartender, who leaned over and kissed him. He kissed him—on the mouth, in front of me; in front of everyone.
My jaw must’ve still been on the floor when Jason turned around because he started chuckling. “You OK?”
I nodded fervently. I wasn’t OK.
I could see his wheels turning, then click into place. He leaned over and half-whispered a question I’d never forget. No one had ever asked me that before. “You like boys, don’t you?”
The music faded away. All the men and lights and drinks and smoke—it all vanished. Jason was the only person in the world, and I felt like I was falling. Not falling for him, actually falling. My head spun, and I lost track of where I was.
When the warmth of his hand on my arm brought me back to the present, I managed a weak smile. “Sure. I like boys fine.”
He cocked his head again, smiled, then vanished into the sea of men.
I blinked a few times as Cowboy Rick plopped another Jack and Coke in front of me. He batted his eyes and gave me a flirty smile as I handed him the last of the paper money in my pocket. I didn’t know whether he was actually flirting or angling for a better tip, but he laughed as he walked away. I’m guessing the bar lighting hadn’t hidden my blush.
I escaped back to the quiet of the patio to find Dwayne deep in conversation with two other men now seated around the table. They were older—and by that, I mean in their thirties, not nearly as old as Dwayne’s ancient forties—and both leaning forward on conspiratorial elbows. All three had that same catlike smile that lingered a moment too long when they noticed I’d returned.
“You made it back,” Dwayne said. The other kitties grinned. One of them, the prettier one with hair a bit too tall for his face, looked me up and down like he was sizing me for a tuxedo. What was that all about?
Felines One and Two excused themselves, but Pretty Cat made a point of squeezing my shoulder as he walked by. Dwayne’s eyes twinkled as he watched the exchange. Had there been an exchange? I didn’t even know where we were, much less what was going on with the shoulder-squeezing, puffy-haired puddy tat.
“I ran into Jason at the bar,” I said.
Dwayne brightened. “Oh? Is he coming out here?”
“No. He disappeared into the crowd. I think he’s headed toward all the music.” I paused and stared at my drink.
That moment has lingered in my memory for years. It’s one of those still-frame moments when you later realize you’d been standing before the proverbial fork in life’s road, but at the time, you had no idea what that tingly feeling in your neck was. My neck was definitely tingling its ass off. Wait, necks don’t have asses, do they?
“He asked me the weirdest question,” I said, then took a sip.
“Oh?” Dwayne arched a wiry, unkempt brow. He was very un-gay in that regard.
“Yeah. I guess he thought I looked uncomfortable or something. He asked if I liked boys.”
Dwayne nearly spat out his drink, but stifled whatever laughter had tried to escape. A second and a swallow later, he looked up. “What did you say?”
“I told him I liked them fine. It just seemed like such a strange thing to ask.”
Something clicked. I saw it in Dwayne’s eyes.
He realized I was still clueless—that lone wolf cub lost in the woods with bears and otters and every other kind of animal wandering around me. His expression changed from amused observer to something akin to Yoda when he gave Luke Skywalker his first lesson. “Gay you are, asking he was.”
OK, he didn’t say it like that, but that’s the gist. Yoda would’ve said it better.
I was shocked. Gay? Me? I could barely bring myself to say the G word. I sucked down my second Jack and Coke and never felt a thing.
“Are you OK?” Dwayne asked.
“Yeah, I am. I mean, I’m not. Yes, I’m fine, but no, I’m not gay.” Articulate as ever though.
He nodded sagely. “OK. You seem to be handling this place alright. Did you not realize we were coming to a gay bar?”
I shook my head. “I’d never been to any bar before tonight, much less a gay one.”
His eyes widened as if seeing some exotic animal at the zoo for the first time.
The lights flashed twice and I looked up, unsure if there was a fire or air raid or what.
“The show’s starting. That’s the two-minute warning,” he said as he rose. “Come on. This should be fun.”
There was that twinkle again, the one I now understood hid Dwayne’s utter glee at exposing me to something else I’d never experienced.
This was going to be a long night.
The herd was definitely moving with purpose. We made it out of the country bar with little trouble, but had to inch our way from there. I’d never seen so many people packed into one place—and the place was huge.
The hallway was crammed with new arrivals who’d skipped line dancing and were headed directly into the main part of the warehouse. It was around midnight, which was apparently when all gays instinctively knew they should arrive. I managed a look back and could see that the line out the glass double doors now wound through the parking lot, so far that I couldn’t see its end. Dwayne had said they crammed two to three thousand people into this place every Friday and Saturday night, but seeing the throng of men in their painted-on T-shirts and jeans that nearly revealed which religion they followed—well, I was overwhelmed.
Shoulders bumped and brushed from all sides. The crowd crawled. The doormen didn’t seem to care and kept letting more join the flow. They pressed tighter together as we shuffled forward.
I couldn’t breathe. I started to sweat.
My eyes darted around, taking in the sea of men. Some locked eyes and smiled in a way that I was sure meant something, I just couldn’t imagine what. I looked away as fast as my head would swivel.
And then it happened. My life raft floated away.
I’d lost Dwayne.
The hallway opened into a vast open space half a football field long. Lights flashed. Fast-paced music, heavily anchored with bass, throbbed through my body. Despite the strobing lights, the massive room was dark, and I couldn’t make out faces well, only writhing shapes.
A different song began to play, this one with words everyone in the bar seemed to recognize, and a cheer rose with every arm as the dance floor hopped as a single beast.
Long bars on every wall served a constant stream of men. At the center of the room, a towering pillar rose to support the ceiling. Around the base of the pillar was a circular stage, on which shirtless men swayed and wiggled and strutted—and rutted—to the beat.
I panicked and found the darkest, emptiest corner I could find. There was no escaping the crowd, but it did thin out a bit around the edges. Leaning my back against the wall gave me some sense of security. At least a gay couldn’t sneak up on me from behind.
Yes, I now know that’s one of the main goals of the place. I didn’t back then.
The lights rotated and flashed, and I looked up. I hadn’t noticed the upper level before. This place went on forever.
A balcony encircled the entire dance floor area, but it wasn’t just a look-over-the-edge kind of balcony. It was wide enough to fit hundreds, and there were three bars on three of the walls. There was even a seating area with couches and puffy chairs at one end. Men were lined along the silver railing, drinks in hand, watching those below.
There was barely an inch of empty space in the whole place—and more men poured in with each passing moment.
Where did all these gay men come from? Had I died and gone to California?
My mind raced as a handsome guy with floppy hair passed by. Our eyes locked for only a second, but that was enough to make the temperature in the room skyrocket. I knew I should just make my way back to the exit, run to Betty, and flee to the safety of my apartment, but I couldn’t move.
Couldn’t? Wouldn’t? I didn’t know. I still don’t.
Instinctively, I pressed my back to the wall. Good, it was actually a corner. No gay-sneak could get my side or my back. Secure in my hiding place, I did the only thing I could do. I watched.
I liked watching people. People were interesting. And this place was a petri dish of interesting.
When my nerves calmed enough for my semi-rational mind to take over, I was again stunned by what I saw. As the child of a very conservative preacher, I’d been taught that all gays were either child molesters or drag queens. It seemed strange. How could a man wanting to get into another man’s pants automatically make him one of those two things? But who was I to challenge the wisdom of my father’s religious teaching?
As I scanned the crowd, I didn’t see anyone who looked like a child molester. In fact, most of the men dancing and drinking looked to be in their twenties or thirties. Weren’t most child molesters older than that? All I knew was, I didn’t see any obvious ice-cream-truck drivers.
And I didn’t see a single man in drag. I’d actually never seen one before, but was sure I’d know one when I saw it.
Everyone looked so normal. They looked happy and relaxed.
They looked like me.
Wait. How was that possible? These were gays! They weren’t supposed to be normal or, I don’t know, anything like me, but that’s what hit me harder than a Jack and Coke with a whole glass’s worth of lime.
Here I was, surrounded by more gay men than I knew existed outside their protective borders, and they looked like any other guys you might see in the real world. I mean, this was the real world, but it wasn’t. This was a giant gay bubble. Right?
A gaggle of gays passed by, clearly headed somewhere in a hurry. They were all laughing hysterically. One of them came up for air and I overheard him say, “Come on, we’re missing the show.”
Right. Dwayne was headed to a show. Curiosity overcame fear and I followed the giggling gaggle.
They weaved through the crowd with practiced ease, carefully pressing palms against shoulders to move the men blocking their progress. I was the guy with the ball following his blockers. I just wished they’d told me what the goal line looked like before we crossed it.
As we entered another short hallway, the throbbing of lights and music faded and was replaced by the sounds of something decidedly showier. The song had more words, was easier to recognize, and there was a performance quality to it that was very different from the mindless rhythm of the dance floor.
Ten yards later, my blockers skipped merrily into another massive room. Like the chamber of dance, there was a balcony on one end that held a bar and room for fifty or so. The main floor was a field of four-top tables crammed with laughing, drinking men. At the end, opposite the balcony, rose a stage roughly four feet above the floor spanning nearly the entire thirty-yard stretch of wall. A catwalk (is that what it’s called?) stretched from the center of the stage halfway through the room.
I stopped walking and gaped as the performer I’d barely noticed marched down the catwalk like she owned the whole club. She was the only woman I’d seen in the bar so far, and was by far the tallest woman I’d ever seen in real life. Her dusty blue wig towered higher than Marge Simpson on a bad hair day. I knew performers wore crazy outfits, but I couldn’t understand why this one had chosen a bedazzled version of Mr. Hefner’s bunny costume, complete with floppy ears that protruded out the top of the mile-high hairdo.
And then I saw her boobs. Man, they were big. No, enormous. And they jiggled like Jell-O that needed more stiffener, or whatever that powder was called. I couldn’t stop staring. How were those things real? Did the poor gal have back problems? My mind raced with questions.
Then someone in the crowd behind me said something about “him” lip-synching well. Him? What him? I looked around the stage and couldn’t find anyone other than Amanda Rabbit.
Then the clouds parted, the sun shone, and two of my repressed, raised-by-wolves brain cells smashed together. This was one of those fabled drag queens, live and in person. I gawked, this time really studying the tall bunny. Her jaw was a little too square, her shoulders too round, and the hair on her chest—WAIT. She had hair on her chest, just above the two presidents of her Mount Rushmore.
No one else seemed bothered, but this was one oddity too many for my already whiskey-addled brain. I turned and fled the field as fast as I could. Before I knew it, I was sinking into the safety of Betty’s driver’s seat and listening to the blessed sound of my door lock clicking into place. My head fell back against the seat rest, and my breathing deepened and slowed.
As I drove home, a slideshow of images scrolled through my head. I couldn’t turn it off. A man in fringe dancing with another man in more fringe. Shirtless boys with abs on their toes grinding against each other. A giant bunny looking at me like I was a carrot … never mind. Bad analogy.
What was really odd were the thoughts that followed.
I was terrified of that place. The idea of spending the whole night there without the safety of anyone I knew nearly sent me into a panic attack—and yet, as I thought about it, I hadn’t had that much adrenaline-induced fun in a long time. The music was great, and I loved the idea of going from one area to another when my tolerance for country was exceeded.
Oh, and there were men everywhere. They came in every age, shape, size, color, and flavor (yes, flavors are a thing, apparently). Many of the men were shirtless and sweaty and rubbing their hands over chests and arms and—
Sorry. Did it just get warm? Why was I sweating? Thinking about all of them made my skin tingle in a way I’d only remembered once before.
I’d seen Joseph twice.
Continue reading My Next Date.