Tuesday night and here we are, tilting at windmills again, grateful for their tolerance, or more likely, benevolent indifference. How we adore them all! How we cherish their wry splendor and casual wit, their pixie noses and cropped cuts, their unabashed declarations of love for one another. After a few drinks, we each have our favorites and our reasons, but none of us are animated by hope. That’s for sure.
The place is a dive and smells like one. Black paint peels from the low ceiling. We’re opposite the bar, jammed in a booth upholstered in cheap leather. Casey, who has been coming here the longest, keeps an eye on the dancers pressed together in front of the jukebox. He prefers the femmes, especially the ones who overdress in retro styles, drolly tying bows and lacing laces. Big and sturdy, he looks the part of someone in a mechanical trade, though in actuality he spends his days pushing paper in a monkey suit.
Next to him, Kelly sips a scotch and soda. Pale and thin-lipped, he always seems on the verge of breaking into a cold sweat. He reminds me of an Old West character—not a hero but someone who loses a poker game and gets shot when he can’t pay up. Like me, he loves the tomboys, the tousled and flat-chested who walk with that floppy swagger, who ping with queer energy, as my sister used to say.
Lastly, there’s the Latino dude, Marcos, who digs the butch chicks, all muscles and military boots. He doesn’t come as often, but we still consider him a regular. The bartenders all know us. They make us feel at home amongst the mostly female clientele.
This evening it’s Irene, one of the veterans, who has a way of pouring bottles that is both sexy and economical. She crisscrosses the streams, showing off the silver rings on her thumbs and tattoos that spiral down her arms. Irene was on duty the first time I staggered in, half-blind and ranting, on a night when I was plain sick of the whole life rigmarole. Since then I’ve been too shy to talk to her.
In the can, I have the pleasure of staring at a picture above the toilet, a close-up of a man being mauled by a grizzly bear. The bear has just knocked him over and is about to sink his teeth into him. Everything is a little blurry.
Back at the booth, the guys silently nurse their drinks and watch the crowd flow in and out. When the music cranks up, so do the girls. Bodies guide other bodies with nary a trace of self-consciousness. They jump, throw their arms high, and shimmy as if their feet were on roller skates. Here and there they steal furtive kisses.
Kelly and I go for a smoke. We can’t stand it anymore. Outside, the place doesn’t look like much—no visible sign, just a gray metal door illumined from above by a pair of oversized Christmas bulbs. Only the unmistakable hiss of human noise coming from behind the door gives away what’s going on inside. Also, a hefty redhead happens to have another girl bent over, palms against the wall, whipping her ass with a studded belt. We stop to watch, lighting cigarettes, and the redhead, laughing, tells us it’s the other girl’s birthday and she’s delivering her birthday lashes.
How many, Kelly asks. But the two, giggling, ignore his question and bum smokes instead. Then they take up their previous positions, and the redhead continues her ministrations, going at it with gusto. I count twenty-two lashes before they go back inside. When we’re done, we stamp out our cigarettes and follow.
I find the birthday girl leaning against the bar. She’s spiky-haired and petite with thick, round glasses that give her a look of surprise. She’s peering at a small flat-screen, which is continuously looping a video of someone scribbling and erasing the word, Blondie, on a yellow notepad. I tell her this is not only the name of the establishment but the owner, a nice lady who lives up the block and sometimes stops in for a drink.
I’ve crashed at her place, she says.
What’s your name, I ask.
Is it really your birthday, Rosalind?
Do you take the cotton out of medicine bottles or leave it in?
Take it out.
Do you pause at the top of stairways?
Do firefighters really rescue cats out of trees?
She turns on her heel and goes back to her group of friends, embracing a girl dressed in a black tie and Sinatra hat. At the booth the guys have a laugh at my expense, but I don’t take it personally. Marcos is arguing with a stranger about semantics.
What, they don’t like to be called lesbians? What should I call them then?
You don’t need to use labels, Marcos explains. Some of them are girls that like girls. Some of them are into being with a girl. Some of them dig girls and some boys, too.
Casey says he’s hungry, and I go with him across the street for a slice of pizza. He recounts memories of his ex-wife, Stella. She had a girlfriend, and he was fine with it, but then they spent more and more time together without him, and he got phased out. Now here he is, nosing around with the rest of us. From separate paths, we came to the same conclusion, that we prefer women who prefer women, that we find something lacking in straight women, something necessary to excite us, which these women have—these women who we can’t have.
Eventually, I suppose, we’ll have to compromise with our hearts. But that’s not so different from everyone else.
Bram Shay is a writer and editor living in New York City. He received an MFA from NYU, and his work has appeared in Harpur Palate, Fourteen Hills and Washington Square. He is currently the Director of Information Services at Poets & Writers.