On the night I visited my first gay bar my great-grandmother lay in a hospital bed three weeks from dying. I make no causal connection: I happened to be free that night. Besides, she was ninety-five. Dementia had eroded her intelligence and self-control, reducing her to a lame menace with a taste for violence. I loved her, or, rather, the woman she once was, and was glad to be rid of her. Almost seventeen years later, I’m fairly confident I didn’t suggest the visit to Club 5922. Alan and Raquel did, aware that sometime in July I had confessed my sexual leanings. Raquel may have been more excited about the visit than either of us, but Alan, a straight man of preternatural sensitivity, was the one who said, in his baby powder voice, “Yeah, let’s do it!”
Nervous, unsure whether I wouldn’t be more comfortable presiding over the slow death of a novogenarian at Pan American Hospital, the twenty-four-year-old graduate student who’d never kissed a boy went along for the ride that was presumably for him. I don’t remember which of them drove; we did listen to PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire? (Alan was a fan, thanks to whom I am too) and Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger,” the latter on the radio. Miles from scenes shown in The Birdcage in South Miami, the county’s dowdiest bourgeois corner, Club 5922 hosted a gay night on Thursdays that attracted men who didn’t feel like the trek across the bridge. This conclusion carried over to the looks and behavior of the guys. I had no gay club stereotype; it was like asking Robinson Crusoe’s Friday to imagine a stagecoach. Their stonewashed jeans, goatees, faint potbellies, and reluctance to look me in the eye weren’t reassuring so much as disappointing, ordinary—as I was to them, a short, balding boy with the perpetual smirkness.
At any rate, I was always the dancer, and after we got drinks I took Raquel and my gin and tonic to the floor. Alan’s liberalism didn’t take him further than the endearing shoulder-shudders favored by non-dancers; he separated from us for a couple of minutes, in theory to look for girls. He was out of luck though: Club 5922 was too commonplace for them, unlike several South Beach gay bars which, my friends would later learn, presented ample opportunities for hooking up with women delighted by the ecumenical spirit of straight dudes hanging without hang-ups with their gay bros. As for Raquel, she didn’t wait for her beer to shake the remains of her commonplaces. Seeing the possibilities of a stage, she jumped on it and danced with the first lonely planet boy who didn’t resist her. I joined, on a Tanqueray buzz.
I wish I could say that I met a beautiful man who gave me a ride home and took me for a ride. Instead the night introduced me to the empathy of friends whose expanses were wider and vaster than I’d dealt with when I was the short, balding graduate student who quoted Stevens and Wilde because their aperçus seemed cooler when I stripped them of sexuality and human feeling. We stuck around for two hours—I’d had enough, and I’m sure they had too. Before we even walked into Club 5922 it had been their intention—I know this from what they told me then and later—to coax me into giving the disembodied admissions of July the sinew with which their lives as unafraid heterosexuals had been reinforced.
Sixteen days later, a time frame I can recall as surely as my birthday, I had that first kiss. A sordid affair, actually, on Key Biscayne’s Hobie Beach, distinguished by drunken brawls and rats as big as alligators. As my pick-up, four years younger and five years more experienced, stepped towards me crunching on pine needles and shards of Michelob, I was relieved that this tryst was the paradise that I had dreamed of—that long slide to happiness, endlessly. A paradise all too human.