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This Gay Life

THE HEAVY DOOR OF THE HOLIDAY BAR WOULD SLAM hard at an earsplitting level behind whoever has just passed through it. This racket would cause the patrons sitting at the bar to simultaneously look up from their drinks and turn their heads in unison to peer through the darkness to see who had just come in. You could gauge your attractiveness for the evening by quickly counting, without being obvious, the number of seconds their collective heads hung in the air after the door slammed announcing your arrival. Anything less than three seconds would probably have been enough reason for you to turn around and go back home. But one always held out hope that, once that door slammed, your Lancelot would be standing on the right side of it. It would take his eyes a moment to adjust in the darkness, but once they did and locked on to yours, there would be nothing but adventure for the rest of the evening—sexual validation and pleasure.

The Holiday Bar was uncomplicated. Wooden. An old fashioned pick-up joint. No need to get dressed up because nobody could really see what you were wearing anyway.

The Holiday Bar sat dimly lit on the outskirts of Oakland. There were no windows. It had the rather astounding ability to appear desolate smack dab in the middle of the city and, walking past, you would have completely missed that telltale heavy door if you were not, in fact, looking for it. In short, it was a dive—a one-room hole in the wall with a horseshoe bar at the center and all varieties of male homosexual scattered around, anchored fast to barstools or standing around in shadowy corners. The jukebox, one of the few sources of light, always seemed to be churning out high-energy dance music fighting against the somber mood of the room. There were regulars. It was smoky. There was a highly graffitied men’s room (“Mark gives good head!!!”) in the basement pungent with acrid urine but, as far as I can recall, no ladies room. The Holiday Bar was uncomplicated. Wooden. An old fashioned pick-up joint. No need to get dressed up because nobody could really see what you were wearing anyway. It was a place for man’s men and it was the first bar I went to when I came out to this city. It reeked of desperation and spilt beer and I loved it. I liked to go by myself late on off nights in the dead of winter when the freezing wind and snow that pushed me in would slam that telltale door behind me with all its might and the few heads at the bar would look up to assess me. I would pretend with everything I had not to be drenched in selfconsciousness as I casually made my way to a barstool as if I could take it or leave it, knowing full well that there was no place in the world that I’d rather be.

The Holiday Bar is gone now. It’s an empty patch of weeds, the bricks long since hauled off. But, when it was there, I was young and, good Lord, was I gorgeous.

But that was a thousand years ago and I’m sitting here tonight three sheets to the wind in a different gay bar in the same city, remarkably different than the Holiday Bar. This bar is all glass and passerby can look directly inside as though we were all on display in some sort of poofter terrarium. It is charmingly and warmly lit, showing off the fact that all the boys are wearing beards this year. They are smartly dressed and slim in dark clothes and a far cry from the flannel shirts with the sleeves cut off that were de rigueur in my day. A damn sight from the Doc Martin boots and the “Act Up/ Cry Out” pink triangle t-shirts that were the required uniform for the homo in the know back in days of yore. These boys are stylish and handsome in a wholly different way. But I am, as I say, three sheets to the wind, munted on Jack Daniels and other things so my judgment may be off. They are sipping cocktails served in svelte glassware, not guzzling beer, and they are talking about celebrities that I have never heard of. But it’s nice to sit here for a moment, to get out of the house and reminisce, allowing the evening to quietly settle all around me amid the light tinkling of glassware and soft tasteful music.

I’m going to go sit by the row of windows and watch the people go by on the sidewalk and look them right in the eye as they walk past all this transparency and challenge them to judge me.

This is something that you could never do at the Holiday Bar. At the Holiday Bar, you were swaddled in an impenetrably dim neon coffin and protected from the world outside. Once that telltale door slammed, you entered into another world, a fortress. The banging of that door behind you signaled that all of your worldly problems, all of the straight people, all of the pretending could go away. A safe space in the world of men, and only men, for just a few hours. But I’m going to go sit by the window now in this different place and look passerby right in the eye and dare them to cast me a disapproving look because I can do that now. I am now the new normal.

A thousand years ago, at the Holiday Bar, the man across from me is staring at my 23-year-old self. I cannot quite make out whether or not he’s worthy of me as it is so dark, so I pretend not to notice. But I can feel him looking. In the days before smartphones, it was difficult to find a place to train your eyes so that you didn’t look like you were out looking. It required skill. You could stare at an Out newspaper, train your gaze down at your drink or the floor, but that was about it. I can feel him staring, and when I look up, he averts his eyes, and when he looks up, I avert mine. The pre-coital waltz. So, I stand up in order to subtly give him a full look at what he might literally be about to get into. I yawn and stretch in a spectacularly obvious way to show him that I am fit, with a flat stomach and muscles, before I walk over to the jukebox that has the added benefit of casting a little light on my smooth, young face so that he can take a look at those goods as well. I pretend to flip through songs, none of which I’m remotely interested in. I flip and pose. Flip and pose. All the while conscious of his eyes on me. I go downstairs to the bathroom and come back up. I flip and pose and pose and flip until it is time to make my way back to my barstool where there is a free drink waiting for me. “It’s from that guy,” says the uninterested bartender through the cigarette still pinched between his lips. He has seen this dance millions of times. The pre-coital tango.

Tonight, in this glass tavern, I have been suddenly snatched out of my remembrances of the Holiday Bar by a drunk girl. Because the place is all glass and built like a sodomy aquarium, she has walked smack dab into a large floor-to-ceiling window with the full force of her body, thinking that it is a way out. Like a dumb goldfish. The window is so clean and clear I can actually see how she made the mistake. The whole force of her head and body made the window react with a loud THWAK and not one person has had the balls to even giggle, opting instead to run to her aid to see if she is okay, fussing over her. I had no such problem laughing at her loudly and pointing looking around to see who I can get to join in. But people are just looking at me strangely and my attempts to talk to them are falling on deaf and irritated ears. In addition, I cannot seem to catch the disapproving and contempt-filled eye of any passerby through this window.

They appear not to care that I’m gay and that I’m sitting brazenly in a gay bar with a large picture window so that they can clearly see that I am out and proud.

I think I may have had too much to drink tonight. Or I just don’t fit in here. One or the other or both.

A thousand years ago at the Holiday Bar, the man across from me and I are now two of only a few patrons left when he finally works up the courage to make his way over. We are both now fully drunk as he has been sending drink after drink my way, and I am either too proud or embarrassed to make my way over to him. He staggers a little into the light of the jukebox and I can see almost immediately that he is not worth my time. He is old. Unprepossessing and plain. He has tried his best to give it the old college try by looking youthful and employing an overdone leather coat under which he is wearing the standard plaid flannel shirt. But his attempts are futile. He is at least fifty if he’s a day. His body is nothing to write home about. He is short and squat which is a difficult thing to tell when someone is perched on a barstool across the room from you. These are the risks you take. I am not sure if my face made any attempt to disguise my disappointment or not. But I know that he’s not worthy of me; my youth and I begin to resent him slightly for attempting to lure me in. I am not sure what his attraction to me says about me, but it can’t be anything good. I am wondering whether or not I’m ugly when he finally flops himself onto the stool next to me and tries to begin the pre-coital disco. I can see that he is chubby. He has let himself go. This will not stand. I have no patience for this and am immediately annoyed. He begins the usual banter, buying me drink after drink, and I soak it all in knowing full well that I have no intention of delivering on the expectations that I can now see reflected in his glassy eyes. With each drink he moves his barstool closer and closer, and I feel a sense of surprising anger rise up in my chest. I don’t know why he’s even out. I don’t know why men like this don’t just stay home. I’ve come all this way and spent all this time talking to him and now he expects me to put out just because he’s bought me a few drinks. His hand finally finds the courage to make its way all the way up my thigh, and I scoot away violently, causing my own barstool to scrape the floor like a needle snatched off a phonograph record. I have had enough. It is now that, in no uncertain terms, I need to tell him that he has no chance with me. He is in no way in my league and I’m, frankly, offended that he could even think such a thing. It’s time to tell him that, although I think he’s nice or whatever, this thing just isn’t going to happen.

This glass bar that I’m sitting in now in the middle of Shadyside used to be called something else. But I am far too drunk, unsteady and clumsy to remember what it used to be called. I do remember that, a thousand years ago, my friends and I used to call it the “Wrinkle Bar,” because the men who tended to frequent the place were old and past their prime; they shouldn’t have been out, really. They made our fine young hides feel cheaply superior with their lascivious stares, and the way that they so nakedly sought after us was patently pathetic, singular in its desperation. We made a point of ignoring them so hard that it made their heads spin. We hit the front doors like a hurricane early on a Saturday night before we actually “went out,” trying hard to look casually masculine in outfits that we’d taken hours to put together and make our way to the bar, and there they sat, sallow skinned, rooted to barstools all in a row like onions, heads hung low looking deep into their drinks as if they were crystal balls. We made sure they noticed us and then we made sure to shame them for doing so. They were jealous because they were past their prime and too late to take advantage of all this freedom. This bar now made of windows used to be made primarily of impenetrable opaque glass block and now is as highly visible as highly visible can be. A conservatory of unapologetic queerness. The people here have changed, gotten snooty. Not one of them has accepted my offer of a drink. They have somehow all become younger and have managed to make me feel quite out of place, so I drink more and stare down at my smartphone and stumble to the bathroom occasionally. Nobody wants to dance with me to the music of “my day” that I keep playing on the jukebox. The bearded boys have no interest in me. They sip their expensive drinks and walk around like they are the cock of the walk, not able to remember Act Up/Cry Out or my pink triangle t-shirt that I wore to show that I was conscious.

We, us homos from the ’90s, are the ones who put in all the real work so they can enjoy all this transparency. We are the ones who did all the heavy lifting.

(I am going to be asked to leave this bar soon. I am too drunk to be in public. I can see the last boy that I attempted to hit on making his way over to the manager.)

A thousand years ago at the Holiday Bar, the man who has bravely crossed the bar to see me is in a rage. He has spent a lot of money on me only to be insulted. The bartender tells him that if he doesn’t calm down, he will be asked to leave, and I take secret pride in the fact that I have brought all this fuss about. Over me. Because, when you’re young, everything is about “me.” He lowers his voice and apologizes to the bartender and sheepishly begins to put on that awful leather coat. When he does, he turns to me and does not meet my eyes. The full atrocity of his age is half-lit by the glow of the jukebox. He looks at the floor while he speaks in a very measured and calm way. He trembles a little with anger and embarrassment.

Some day,” he says. “Some day you won’t look good. You’re not always going to be young. Some day everything you’re so proud of right now will be gone forever, and I wish that I could be there to see it.”

I am wholly amused by his ridiculousness and I talk shit on him to the bartender after he leaves humiliated. Sour grapes are never attractive.

By far, the most horrible thing about this glass bar, this cellophane palace in which I currently sit, is the fact that everywhere you turn is a reflective surface. Looking drunkenly out the window, I can’t help but see my own face. Cracked and old. Crow’s feet. Worry lines and wrinkles, a face caving in on itself. I can’t help but notice the fact that my gut has overtaken my belt buckle bravely shielding it from the elements. The craggy outline of my sour jaw. Yellowed and tired eyes. I can’t help but see the thinning hair and what’s left of it graying rapidly.

I can’t help but see what a bastard I was for such a long time so many years ago. It all comes around and around and around and absolutely no one is immune.

I have drunk too much tonight, and for too many other nights for that matter, and it is beyond time for me to make my way home as I can see that the manager has pretty much had it with my presence. Before he does me the favor of physically removing me, I will sheepishly gather my coat and stumble to the door. This gay life. This gay life, it occurs to me far too late, should always be about recognizing the humanity in your brothers and sisters who have come through some of the same trials and tribulations that you have. It should be about caring about people beyond their ability to make you happy, to titillate you beyond their sexual viability. It should be about supporting the young and supporting the old and recognizing what they have to contribute and not just pedastalizing young, taut, white skin. But I don’t know that anything will ever really be able to penetrate the perpetual adolescence of gay men still living out repressed high school fantasies. Sour grapes are never attractive.

I open the door to stagger into the night, away from these spaces that don’t want me anymore and regretting how much time I’ve wasted in bars. And before I stumble down the sidewalk I cast one last look inside this highly spit-shined and shiny castle and at the sophisticates who dwell within. I catch myself thinking that maybe it might just be this lot. Maybe this will be the lot of young men in this gay life to finally get it right.

Brian Broome is an author and M.F. A. Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. For more info, visit brianbroome.com.