“Can I buy you a drink?” he asks.
He’s fifteen or twenty years older than me, Latino, handsome and lascivious, wearing a button-down floral shirt not much different than my own. He hasn’t seen my left hand, yet.
“You can buy me two, but there’s no chance I’m going to sleep with you tonight.” I answer.
I’ve never said anything like this to another human being before. I don’t dislike him. I’m just offended by the circumstances. Offended that I’ve found myself in the middle of someone else’s script. I’m determined to disrupt it.
“OK…” he says, his smile souring but not disappearing entirely.
It’s 2007 or 2008, and this is my first time in a gay bar without a girlfriend at my side, without a drag show in progress, without any sort of pretense other than the fact that I just wanted to be here, myself. My “lesbian brother,” Shine, brought me here–to Vegas, to Pride–last night. We drove over the Hoover Dam from Phoenix in the middle of the night, trying to get our shitty internet phones to find the hours of a Buddhist-owned vegan donut shop in the suburb near her friend’s house. We got the donuts at 4:45 in the morning, ate too many of them, and woke up with terrible sugar hangovers on her friend’s couch. She wants me to meet her people, but she has to give them caveats about me that I don’t hear in person. I imagine what she’s said; he’s a baby queer, he’s barely human, he’s a witch. He doesn’t know anything. He knows too much. He’s full of himself. He’s going through some shit.
The bartender comes over to me and the older Latino man. We slept at the bartender’s condo last night. She’s a friend. She thinks I’m a witch, like maybe that’s bad, but she liked yelling about things with me last night. I was fairly certain at the time anyway that I’d won her over. She had a framed suit from a famous mob-era Vegas crooner on the stairs of her condo, was married to him for two years. The thing she most remembers him saying to her is, “You’ve got magnificent tits.” I think I believed her.
“Two of whatever he wants,” the man says.
She glares at me but she’s smiling underneath, malicious, “You sure?” she asks him.
“Be gentle,” she growls mockingly to me.
The bar is open 24 hours, and we’ve been here for a while already. It’s daylight outside but filling up with a whole scene of people I’ve never interacted with on my own. People are bitching about the parade on the strip. It’s garbage, is the consensus. Cops and spectators. The real parade is later, the real community is here. I’m not part of the community. I’m not part of any community. I’ve been sleeping in the desert and on people’s couches and in the back of a truck for years. I’m “not gay” but looking around the bar I feel like I’ve had the shit kicked out of me for being gay more times than any of these culture-fetishists, and fuck it, sure I’m gay. I’m whatever. It doesn’t matter. Is this what “being gay” is? Fashion and media and dialect?
“She says that to you …” the older man says, and winks at me in an awkward sort of way that makes me think of him practicing it in the mirror, as if it would be some kind of selling point for his personality.
“She’s a friend,” I say.
I try to punctuate my point by finishing my drink, but it’s just ice. I don’t have any money. Shine and the bartender friend said it wouldn’t be a problem. They’re right. I’m a commodity. A dangerous commodity. I’m in my early-to-mid-twenties, slim from years of veganism and bicycling and wandering the desert, from years of invisibility and deep-seated bitterness. My red hair hangs down my back, my beard is a flaming spearpoint hanging from my chin, my size 0 knockoff girls’ jeans and floral button-down cling to my frame, I smell of clary sage and helichrysum and palo santo and dirt. I’ve never been desired. I’ve always been reaching for someone else who was falling away from me, never experienced this strange dance of having someone else reach for me while I drift and dodge them. It feels predatory in a way that I can’t exactly respect in myself but can’t resist playing into either. It’s intoxicating.
Shine, my sardonically-but-aptly-titled lesbian brother, the only one who understands me, the one who is so different from me that she has somehow wrapped back around from the other side of the universe to grasp the nature of my consciousness, the one who engineered this experience for me despite my initial protestations, bumps into the barstool next to me and rights it, settles herself there. She leans forward to look across me at the older man buying me drinks. Shine and the bartender share a laugh with each other over the interaction. The man is uncomfortable but composed. I realize in this moment that he’s lonely and he’s horny, but he’s not the predator I took him for.
“Two drinks for Pumpkin?” the bartender asks him, putting the first one down on the bar in front of me. That’s what they call me. Pumpkin. I guess it’s because I’m red-headed and my fair skin tanned poorly in the desert, or because I’m somehow precious or ridiculous to them. Shine has that gift of nicknaming people that is powerless to fight against.
My nervous system curls strangely and the fingers of my right hand flex involuntarily through a series of mudras, I take the highball glass of whiskey between the thumb and middle finger of my left hand to take a drink, smiling and giggling at the man, and that is when he sees that terrible left hand. The cheap Halloween store skeleton glove, black with white bones stenciled along the fingers and the back of the hand, and a carnation poised between my free fingers. I’m deliriously happy. I’m being myself with no ramifications. I’m indoors with friends. I don’t have to leave anytime soon, and no one here will call me a freak.
The man stares at my skeletal left hand, at the carnation, at the drink he bought me, at the hungry smile on my lips as I sip his whiskey. He’s terrified. He’s desperately sad. His eyes are bright with darkness and revelation. He’s made an enormous mistake. He’s going to Hell just like someone told him, and it’s all his fault. My heart folds in on itself in confusion and shame. I don’t have any idea what I’ve done, but it’s not what I meant to do. This was my story, not his. Why is he so upset? He was only supposed to be disappointed… maybe even a little embarrassed, but his cool is gone. I liked his cool. It made me feel cool.
He says something to the bartender and even she, with her callous former trophy-wife lesbian humor looks uncomfortable, but all she says is, “He left some drinks in the bank.”
Hours later, Shine made the mistake of telling me there was an air-hockey table in the back. The bar is much more crowded now, but a full-on clique of what must be extremely popular scene kids have taken it over with some kind of makeout party by the time we get there. I’m over the older man for now. Whatever I did to him, I reason, he probably wanted worse with me. I start the air-hockey table even though there are people making out on it. They giggle and pretend to thrill to the air kicking on, and I’m aghast that I haven’t been kicked out, sworn at, assaulted yet. I’m coming untethered. The boundaries of this place are not what I know, and I’ve never been good with the boundaries that I did know. I start playing with some friend of Shine’s. People make noises about us stealing the table, but I’m raucously ringleading at this point, come one come all and face the terror of my air-hockey mastery. I play three or forty games. I have no idea. I keep telling people to watch their fingers, but I’m aiming for them when they don’t keep them off the table. Shine’s friend is whispering at shouting volume that I’m a witch. I am, but what the fuck does she know?
“You know what that carnation means to people around here, right?”
I don’t, though. It’s just intuition. It’s just what happened when people broke out the costuming, and I went with it.
Fuck people, anyway. Fuck community.
I’m walking into the punk bar across the street. I use my passport as ID, and the bouncer just laughs. Someone is shouting from behind me as I go in. There are stickers and marker tags from bands I’ve seen all over the states in the bathroom. The place is practically deserted. I talk to the bartender asking why, and he just explains that “It’s Pride.” Somebody is trying to get me to leave, but I ask the bouncer and he says I’m fine. It’s one of Shine’s friends. They’ve been looking for me. Were worried.
They make me relax. There are modular couches and ottomans that push together in a bunch of different ways. We build a nest and it’s a safe place for everyone for a while, and I feel less volatile, less primed for things to go wrong, less like an impostor or a predator. Less intentional. We go back and forth between the dance floor and people come and go from our group. I know I’m talking too much about magic and anarchy, but I’ve never been this drunk and I’m too young to feel the side-effects yet, it’s just exuberance and camaraderie and then this beautiful boy is sitting next to me but he won’t kiss me because I am Death.
“I can’t kiss you. You’re Death.”
I don’t know if that’s how he said it. But it’s what he said. The skeletal left hand, the carnation, the wild abandon and hysterical laughter. He says he’s not exactly scared of me, but he doesn’t understand what I’m trying to do. Maybe a third of the bar is Latin-American, and here I am with all the accoutrement of Death himself, laughing and
dancing and drinking.
“You’re scaring people.”
“I told them you were a witch,” says one of Shine’s friends.
“That doesn’t begin to describe it…” I answer lamely. I’m drinking water.
“Well what-the-fuckever, you fucking queen,” she’s laughing at me, she doesn’t care about the subtext, and I don’t blame her, “You’re fine, nobody here will even fucking remember you.
Time goes by. I drink water about it. I talk to people who have no idea what I’m talking about. I have this problem, I can’t be seen for what I am, I can’t be part of their community, any community. No one is impressed. Some of them are turned on. All of them are distracted. It’s not about me. It’s really not about me. I’m just one more person who fucked up the sacred dialogue of the gay bar and made an ass out of myself. My tab is still open. Our bartender friend is off-duty now and uproariously laughing at the bizarre scenes I’ve caused while otherwise ignoring everyone so she can find a spot to dance by herself.
I spend a few minutes looking for Shine but get impatient and go outside for air. When does this place close? Oh, right. It doesn’t. I go across the street to another bar, something with its name spelled out in chains on a mounted buffalo head or something like that. It’s blurry. There’s hardcore pornography playing on the TVs of what had probably once been some kind of sports bar, and everyone is male and white and huge and dressed in leather and studs. I’m at the bar in seconds, ordering whiskey and I don’t think I was ever carded or that I paid a dime. Don’t know how long I was there, but I remember laughing and challenging people, interrupting conversations.
Somebody’s words are echoing in my head as I move back across the street to the original bar, the “safe” bar, but they’re all distorted. Something about how it was the wrong place to look for a fight, no not like that, yeah we get it, somebody’s looking for you, get out of here, no it’s fine just go… They, or at least one of them, brought me back.
“Here’s your little Death. Take care of him. He’s spoiling for something.”
The “real” Pride Parade was in Old Vegas the next day or night or something like that. A crazy little rundown jumble of five or six story brick buildings that smelled of mold and urine and stale beer and cigarettes, outdated penny-slot machines crowding their ground floors and strange, lonely gaming and singing lounges branching off into the limbs above. I loved it there, it was so tragic and forgotten and seedy. The street was amazing. Simple two-way streets like a miniature midwestern city, utterly crammed with every kind of freak, weirdo, and family-friendly, prime-time gay couple you could imagine, while rented limos and garage-built floats rolled slowly up and down the same couple of blocks, flinging condoms and lube and pamphlets and screaming at the cops. The cops gave the whole affair a wide berth and straight business owners sided with the leather-daddies and drag queens, the whole bright and smiling QUILTBAG Bacchanal, knowing if nothing else we were crazy good for business.
I’m less wrecked than one would think on our way back across the Hoover Dam, but I’m not any closer to finding a culture for myself, and one step further along the path to accepting that there isn’t one. Shine doesn’t find me as fascinating as I find myself, but she understands that it’s not as if finding a place where people could be not-straight would have somehow miraculously alleviated all of the pain and alienation of the world for me. It hadn’t for her, either. But it was a space that a part of her could occupy without stigma, and that was something for me as well.
I’d been so prepared to laugh at myself for going into Pride saying “I’m not gay, but…” and to come out saying, “OK, I’m gay.” I could have reflected and internalized that, dealt with the blow to my much-vaunted self-awareness and internalized the new information with some measure of grace. Nothing so simple, nothing so clear, nothing even actionable. Just another interstitial space to partially exist in, another litany of voices in my head asking me what I am and what I’m doing here. Never “who.” Always “what.” Another set of norms and mores to completely fail to uphold. Another group of people to despise me.
I was and still am thankful for the entire experience, for all of the people that made room for me and kept me safe, and for so many since then, and rightfully apologetic to everyone that I myself alienated in those spaces that should have been safe for them. My own unrelated strangeness got the better of me. I’m also deeply aware that to benefit from community you have to be willing to join and to share, and that is easier for some than for others. Like every subculture I’d ever seen, this was largely a collection of agreed-upon media and affectations that I didn’t share. “They” for all their differences of background and personality, all their individuality and personhood, had a common language of sorts. I only say “they” because it had become clear that I could no more live within “their” borders of belonging than I could center my life around The Church. I was not one of them. I loved them, and I loved the freedom to express whatever part of my sexuality or gender or outrageousness I wanted and suffer no more than a familial vicarious cringe, but I was gradually realizing that I was not “one of” anyone or anything and was going to have to learn to exist that way without the constant searching. Without making it everyone else’s problem.