Silver Paint and Cigarettes

The man’s face was painted silver. Thick, shiny silver. He wore a black jacket over a flannel shirt, and he had a Saints ball cap pulled low on his head. Blue jeans, tennis shoes. He leaned against a wall and took a long drag on a cigarette, blowing the smoke out in a long stream, and a low sigh exited his lips as he stood there. Then I noticed that his hands were painted silver too.

I leaned over to Mike. “Look!” I spoke in an excited whisper. The man took another long drag on his cigarette, blowing the smoke out, and then he began walking down the block, away from us. Mike took brief notice, then looked back down at his phone, disinterested. But I was fascinated by this man.

“He must have been one of those guys who does street performances. He paints himself silver and stands there not moving like a statue and people stand in front of him and take pictures and give him tips and stuff. He’s one of those guys.”

Mike used his phone to navigate us to our destination, a little supper club space a few blocks off of Bourbon Street. We entered an old building with sparse decor. A band sat right inside the entrance, playing old blues songs, and the perfect mix of the percussion, the clarinet, the bass, and the piano arrested my senses. The man at the piano crooned softly into a microphone, his voice reminiscent of Louis Armstrong. (But somehow in this setting it made me think more of King Louis in Disney’s the Jungle Book). My foot started tapping as I surveyed the room. A simple bar with a bartender named Jory who was dressed like some kind of 1950s pin-up girl as she deftly mixed drinks for the small crowd. A few scattered tables and stools with six or so people spread among them, all listening to the music. No one had their phones out, and that struck me almost more than anything.

“Oh, this is perfect,” I whispered to myself. Just a few blocks away there were hundreds of people swarming up and down the street in vast crowds, tripping over each other, half-drunk. They clamored from bar to bar, shop to shop, on the street full of singers, crooners, and musicians, with a different club every thirty feet, each with its own oyster or crawfish specialities, its own drinks, its own music with horns and drums and lead singers. But this place, with this handful of people, just far enough of the beaten path, was somehow perfect.

I ordered a drink from the bar, something with rum and gin and ginger beer and cherry juice and orange peel, and as Jory began shaking it all together in a metal cup, the band started a new number. The piano shifted into the upper octaves, the bass thumped out a deep resonant strain, and the percussion shifted into some wood-block-tapping sound. I turned as the clarinet began its song, and my spirit soared with it. I took my drink and joined Mike at the table.

“This. Is. Perfect.” I repeated with emphasis, and he laughed.

“Happy 40th birthday vacation weekend,” he smiled, gripping my hand, and I laughed. We clinked our drinks together, and the clarinet soared around our heads as we sipped in celebration.

One song later, I looked up to see a cop ride by on horseback, clip-clopping through the French Quarter a literal head and shoulders above everyone else.

I leaned in to Mike. “Where else would you see that?

He twisted his lips up the way he does when he’s about to make a joke. Banter is one of the very best parts of our relationship. “Canada,” he replied.

“No, they ride moose there.” I wiggled my eyebrows.

Mike rolled his eyes. “You can’t tame a moose.”

“Well, I did,” I stated, then stroked his hand affectionately, like I was petting a dog.

“Hey! I’m not a moose!”

He jabbed at me as I simply took another sip of my drink. “Aw, I made the moose upset. Look at his cute little waaaaaaah-tlers.”

Mike broke, laughing, and the singer started crooning again. There was a growl in his voice, and it made me want to snarl in the very best ways.

We went for a walk after that, weaving around the side streets of the French Quarter, with its small and beautiful homes, its waving flags, its low lights. We passed no less than six gay clubs and fifteen supper clubs, and people were crammed into every one of them, watching the Saints play football. We heard whoops and shouts and laughter, and we held hands as we walked.

We ended up back at the same club, wanting just a bit more, and saw the band was on break. Jory waved at us as we arrived, outside on her cigarette break, and I smiled. Taking a seat at the same table. I watched the four men from the band at the bar. Two wore straw hats. The singer had dreadlocks. I wondered what their lives were like. They had wives and children, day jobs, families, and here they were on a Thursday night playing incredible music for this tiny crowd for no other reason than that they loved it. Between sets, they checked text messages, had idle conversation, had a quick drink. At the end of the night, they’d go back home by bike or in a cab, and they’d sleep before their alarms went off for the workday in the morning.

Soon after, Mike and I headed back to our Airbnb, tired from the long flight and the time change, the walking and the humidity. And I thought of that man, the statue performer. I thought of him posing with drunk people in photos for tips. The put on his jeans, his jacket, his hat, then snuck around a corner for a cigarette break, still in his silver paint. I thought of the silver paint from his lips on the cigarette, of the silver swirls that must permanently stain around his shower drain, of the canister of silver body and face paint that must stack up on the side of his bathroom, of the cigarette smoke rising slowly in the air before disappearing. Evanescent. Just like me.

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The Sexy Cop at Gay Christmas

“Maybe I could actually pull this off,” I told myself, surveying my costume in the mirror.

I’d purchased a “sexy cop” costume for forty dollars at a local costume shop. It came in a small compact plastic back that fastened together with a small snap, like one you’d find on a pair of jeans. When I got home, I opened the back up to look at its contents. A police cap of cheap material with a plastic bill. A small vest that would fit over my shoulders but leave my chest and abdomen exposed. An armband that would go around my bicep, one that read Sheriff on it. A pair of black leather briefs with a zipper along the front. A silver star to pin on the vest, like something my kids might be handed by a cop at a family parade. And finally, a small plastic nightstick, 1920s/Keystone Cops style, one I could twirl around like a baton or perhaps slap against my own hand for emphasis.

I looked at myself in the mirror, turning this way and that. My chest looked good. My arms looked great, especially with that little band to emphasize the definition. My legs were strong. I turned and felt like my ass looked nice as well. Turning back, I realized the zipper over the crotch was a nice touch, kind of left the imagination working. And while I wasn’t super proud of my abdomen, I figured I could just kind of keep my gut sucked in all night at whatever party I was going to and just see how it turned out.

This was my third Halloween since coming out of the closet. I was 34 years old, and while I hadn’t quite achieved the type of body I hoped for, I was in great shape for me. Somewhere along the way, I learned to quit caring what other guys thought about me. I mean, either they were into me or they weren’t. I wasn’t for everyone, nor was everyone for me, and that was fine. I liked my body, especially given the fact that I’d weighed 80 pounds more just a few years before. But still, this was Halloween, and I was going to be wearing a ‘sexy’ costume for the first time, and I didn’t have a ton of body confidence. “Maybe I can’t pull this off,” I muttered, changing back into my regular clothes.

When I first came out, a friend jokingly told me that Halloween was kind of a ‘gay Christmas’, meaning that gay men took it very seriously and went all out. I’d known growing up that there were all kinds of ‘sexy’ costumes for women. But I had no idea how seriously gay men treated this idea of ‘sexy’ costumes. I spent Halloween in 2011 at a gay club called Jam. I wore a costume, something simple and not at all sexy, I think I was a 1930s mobster guy, and I went out dancing with friends that night, and I’d been astounded at the costumes. Sexy Mario? A guy wore a red hat with an M on it, a fake moustache, and a red jockstrap that literally left his ass hanging out. That was it. Sexy Tarzan? A super buff guy in a loincloth, under which he wore nothing. I know because I saw him lift the loincloth several times to show people. Sexy Angel Moroni? A lean, muscled guy who basically wore a diaper, painted himself gold, and carried a plastic trumpet. Man, it really was gay Christmas.

So was I sexy enough to pull off a sexy cop costume? Or should I go back to a more traditional costume, something that covered my body? Ugh. I had to try it. I’d been invited to two Halloween parties, and dagnabit, I was going as a sexy cop.

I showed the costume to a female friend, and she fully encouraged me to go for it. I asked what she was going to be that year: a sexy cat, a sexy witch, a sexy nurse perhaps? She laughed and said she was far too feminist for that. When I suggested she should try maybe a sexy suffragette, or maybe a sexy Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and she was not amused.

The first party was on a Saturday afternoon. I went in a bit nervous but confident. My best friend Kurt was there, and as I exited the bathroom in my costume, he threw his head back and laughed with joy. “Yes! You did it! And check you out, you sexy, sexy man!” I blushed as others from the party came to look, and I ended up getting plenty of attention that night. I spent the evening snacking, having a few glasses of wine, and feeling a little bit shy as I fended off veiled comments about the nightstick and the handcuffs. And then, at the end of the evening, there was a vote for various costume categories, with prizes awarded at the end. Funniest, most original, etc. And guess who won the sexiest costume award? The hot cop. That’s right, this guy. Maybe it didn’t matter that I was the youngest person in the room by at least 11 years, I still got the award, and it was a nice ego boost. (When you’re a gay dad with young kids, and you have a lot of gay dad friends with older kids, well, this wasn’t so unlikely).

But the next party, that would be the real test. It was a huge house party, with an expected 150 people going. This was a younger crowd, full of athletes and professionals, many of them men who spent hours in the gym every day. This was a party that would start late and go all night. There would likely be drugs in quiet corners, groping and nudity were a given, and I’d expect some guys would have quick sexual encounters behind closed doors. This was the kind of party some of Mormon friends warned me about when they told me not to pursue ‘the gay lifestyle’. It would be out of my element, but I desperately wanted to fit in in this crowd. It was a lifelong need for me to fit in, a primal part of me left over from my adolescent days when I was the gay kid with the straight guys, feeling less than them but in love with them all at once, yet always picked last for every sports team. I needed to fit in here.

The party started at 7 pm, it said on Facebook. So I arrived at 7:02. I was the first guest there. The next few arrived around 8:45. When I’m not careful, the dad part of me shows up very clearly. And so I helped the hosts set up snacks, I had a strong drink that one of them mixed for me, and by the time the party was really going, with loud ‘nn-ts nn-ts nn-ts’ music blaring all over the three story house, I was good and sauced, a rare occasion for me. I chatted a bit, yelling into some guy’s ears, introducing myself to others, dancing a bit in the main room. There were sexy guys everywhere, ripped and toned, with muscles on their muscles, and I felt very exposed in comparison. I drew a few eyes, but the Charlie Brown tree hardly stands out among a forest full of sequoias. Clearly I needed one more drink.

Someone handed me something homemade, and I took it without much of a thought. It was sweet, and I drank it a bit too quickly. It was about 11:30 pm, and the house was full of people. I went back out to the dance floor and saw a sexy construction worker making out with a sexy Superman (he was shirtless with a red S painted on his chest), and the music kept going nn-ts nn-ts nn-ts. I started to dance a little, and then quickly realized that something was very wrong. My head was starting to spin, and my heart was beating faster, and my stomach was seizing a bit.

Now the next day, I would make sense of all of this. I either drank too much too quickly, something I had literally never done before, or that drink I’d been given had been laced with something. It was very likely the second, because I learned later that several other people from the same party had similar side effects, so I’m guessing it was probably something in the drink. Regardless, I had to get out of that room, where the bass was thrumming in my head and in my stomach, and it had to be now.

I fell against a wall and kind of leaned into it down the hallway to the bathroom, where of course the door was locked. I slumped on to the floor and covered my eyes with my hands, and my brain felt like it was swimming around in my head, just turning and turning. The door finally opened and two drunk and giggling gay men, one of them in some sort of sexy Pikachu costume, came stumbling out, and I crawled in, kicked the door closed behind me, managed to lock it, and then proceeded to vomit. And then again, and again. I threw up until there was nothing left to throw up, and then I dry heaved a few times, and sat back against the wall, where my head was still swimming. I’m not sure how long I sat there, but someone finally knocked and shook me to alertness again, and I stood up, flushed the contents of my stomach away, and washed my hands before opening the door.

It was sexy Pikachu again, with yellow ears, yellow briefs with a lightning bolt tail, and a Pokeball hanging from each side of his shorts. “Hey, hot cop costume!” he said, tracing his finger down my stomach and to my leather shorts. While such attention in this setting might welcome in different circumstances, I was seeing four of the shirtless Pokemon bouncing around in the air in front of me, and I simply muttered a thanks while holding on to the wall for support again. I found the stairs and used the banister to pull myself up. There were three bedrooms upstairs and only one was unoccupied. I made my way inside, lay down on the floor by the bed instead of on it for some reason, and watched the dark ceiling twirl above my head as I lay there.

I must have stayed in that spot for three hours. At some point, freezing there on the floor in my sexy cop costume, I pulled the comforter off the bed and onto the floor, where I covered myself with it. Shortly after that, two drunk men came in to make out with the door closed, and they continued even after they saw me, perhaps thinking I was asleep, or perhaps just too drunk to care. And then, I fell asleep.

Around 3 am, I woke up on the floor. I’d turned on my side, the sheriff’s star poking hard into my chest, my trusty nightstick still near my fingers somehow, the handcuffs still hanging from the side of my briefs. The room wasn’t spinning, but now my head was thudding terribly. I got up, saw two people sleeping in the bed, and exited the room. I heard someone vomiting in the bathroom, saw about 8 people passed out in various rooms of the house, and realized the music was still playing. Nn-ts, nn-ts, nn-ts. I turned it off, found where I’d stashed my keys, and exited the house. There was more vomit in the driveway.

As I drove home that morning, I thought of my children, and the way they grounded me. Sometimes I resented having all that responsibility. I’d started my life so late. I hadn’t come out until I was 32, which was also the age when I first kissed a man, first had authentic sex, first stopped hating myself. Sometimes I sat around and felt sorry for myself, for all the time I lost. No college parties, no backpacking across Europe, no crazy adventures with a first love. I’d missed my 20s somehow, spent them being a responsible Mormon boy. But an event like this, with loud music and strong booze and promiscuous hook-ups and revealing costumes, well, they might make a fun story to tell one day, but they ultimately weren’t things I really wanted. They were just thinks I thought I wanted. I’d much rather have A drink, hang out with a FEW friends, and be in bed by midnight so I could wake up to the sounds of my children. A night out from time to time would be wonderful, but I certainly didn’t need a headache like this to show me a good time.

I got home, unzipped my leather shorts, un-velcroed my arm band, slipped out of the vest with the sheriff’s star, removed the hat, and hung up the handcuffs and nightstick. Then I slipped on a pair of baggy blue sweat pants and a tent-size T-shirt left over from the days when I used to be fat, popped a few Ibuprofen, and collapsed on the couch, where I would sleep as long as I could. I certainly never wanted another hangover.

I smiled to myself as I fell asleep, though. I’d won a ‘sexiest costume’ award. And I’d gotten drunk at a party. That was enough, once, I told myself as sleep beckoned. That was plenty sexy enough.

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Men Seeking Men

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It was a Saturday night and, lacking anything better to do, my best friend Kole and I walked down to the gay bar a few blocks from my apartment, a divey little place with tables and chairs and a nice back patio. We showed our IDs at the door and walked the perimeter of the place, looking at the patrons as they nursed their drinks, everyone checking everyone else out.

“Let’s just get one drink,” Kole said. “My treat.”

I hesitated. “I drank last night. Not really sure I want anything.”

“Come on, two bachelors out on the town on a Saturday night. One drink.” Kole smiled and I rolled my eyes.

“All right, one drink.”

“What do you want?”

“Surprise me.”

Kole walked over to the empty bar and smiled at the bartender. “We’ll take two drinks, something sweet. Surprise us.” Then for the next few minutes, the bar tender mixed different colored beverages in two mason jars, stuck straws in them, and handed them over. They were much larger drinks than we had planned, but when in Rome, and soon we were seated at a corner table taking sips as we talked about life.

Kole is a unique friend, and one of my favorite people. We can laugh, be obnoxious, and be adventurous, and we can kick back and be serious and there for each other during the tough times. We spent some time being snarky, laughing about inside jokes, then the buzz from the sicky-sweet started to kick in. Normally, I’m pretty happy when drinking, I get silly and want to dance. That night, though, the alcohol seemed to have the opposite impact, and I got sad and serious.

Kole, who had recently broken up with the last guy he was dating, lamented about the simple things it takes in relationships to help him be happy. He took another sip from his drink. “Have I ever told you about the date where I knew I fell in love Todd?” Todd was Kole’s ex-husband; they had split just a few years ago after Todd had cheated on Kole with a younger guy.

I shook my head. “You haven’t.”

Kole twisted his lips up, a bit sad, thinking. “I had to cancel a date with him pretty early on in the relationship cause of some family stuff. He checked in on me, didn’t get mad, and later he picked me up and took me for a picnic where he had all of my favorite foods prepared. None of it went together. Vanilla Coke, Stovetop stuffing, and Twix bars. He did all of those things just for me. I knew it then. We had a good marriage for a long time, and I could overlook the bad things cause he did sweet things for me. He always had a Coke and a candy bar waiting for me at home when I had a bad day. He was always there when I came back. But over time, things changed. He started lying to me, then cheating. I think I might hate him now. But I can’t seem to find anyone who will care about me in the same way.”

I thought for a moment, looking at Kole with narrowed eyes as I came to a realization. “You know why dating isn’t working for you, don’t you?”

Kole shook his head, surprised. “No. Why?”

“Because you are looking for him.”

“Him?”

I nodded, sitting my drink down after one more sip. “Yeah. You are looking for your ex-husband. Or at least the way things were when things were good with him. You’re looking for someone who does things the way he did things.”

Kole looked surprised, then tilted his head as he chewed on that information for a minute. “You’re right. I can see that. But is that so wrong?”

“It absolutely isn’t wrong to want to be someone’s priority. But you’re never gonna find that. I mean, sure, you can find someone to date and care about you and put you first, but they won’t ever do it in the way that he did. It will be in the way they do it. Instead of picnics, it will be notes on the mirror, or instead of Cokes, it’ll be bear hugs at the end of the day. I closed my eyes tight, feeling my head spin from the alcohol a bit, like little wires of stress loosening in my brain. It felt wonderful. “I mean, we all look for what is familiar, right? And we all seem to turn down whatever doesn’t match that.”

I leaned forward in the chair, having some sort of epiphany on dating in my alcohol haze, like suddenly it all made sense. “We’re in the age of instant gratification, right? Look at all the lame reasons we rule people out for dating. They didn’t text back fast enough. Too old, too young. They only bottom or only top or aren’t versatile enough. They don’t have the same kinks I do. They’re too tall, they’re still in college, they want kids or have kids or don’t want kids. They’re too sensitive or not sensitive enough. They smoke, they are a recovering addict, they live too far away.”

I sat back then, gesturing with raised hands and talking just a bit too loud. “Everybody’s ruling everybody else out because they aren’t a picture perfect expression of exactly what they are looking for. And we’re gay, which makes it worse. Men are all logical, more head than heart anyway, and growing up gay meant hiding yourself or feeling broken or whatever. The cards are totally stacked against us.”

I rested my elbows on the table and put my head in my hands, suddenly tired. I half-expected the Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby to come on. “Ah, look at all the lonely people.”

It’s just how it all works. Adam wants Ben who wants Charlie but Charlie only wants what David and Edward have and Frank doesn’t think anyone wants him and George doesn’t want anyone.” I took my long last drink, slurping up the remains from the ice cubes at the bottom, impressed with my alphabetical naming skills.

“But you’re totally gonna find someone, man. You’re one of the good ones.” I looked up, my brilliant speech finally concluded. I reached over the table, grasped Kole’s hand with a tight squeeze. “One day at a time, brother.”

“You too, Chad.” Kole squeezed my hand back, and then suddenly I was laughing, my chin dropped to my chest and my eyes closed. “What? What’s so funny?”

I laughed harder. “It’s Saturday night and we are buzzed in a bar and having this conversation. Oh god, we are those drunks.”

Two days later, Kole and I got coffee together. As we chatted, we took out our phones and opened up Grindr, the gay-chatting app. We compared notes on the guys we were looking at, starting chats with some, ignoring others, being ignored by others still, ruling out this one for this reason and that one for that reason, just like every other gay in the city.

And on another Saturday night soon me and Kole and so many others would wonder why we hadn’t found the one yet.

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Why-oh-Wyoming

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“Now remember, just because he has a mustache, it doesn’t mean he’s 21. Make sure to card before selling alcohol. The risks are just too big.”

As the public service announcement ended and more country music came back on the radio, I looked across the vast stretching snow-swept plains that extended in every direction, rolling black and brown peaks in the distance, a few rocky outcroppings stretching into the sky. The sun was just coming up over the peaks and I could finally see the terrain, after a few hours of driving in the early morning darkness. Gusts of wind blew light drifts of snow across the road.

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I pulled into Rock Springs, Wyoming a brief time later, here for a work shift for a few days. As I stepped out of the car, the wind cascaded across me, biting and much colder than I had anticipated. January in Wyoming was a bitch, clearly.

I shivered and pulled my scarf tighter around my neck, nestling into my coat, and stepped into the nearby gas station, a local place with the god-awful name of the Loaf ‘n Jug, it’s sister station the Cum n’ Go right across the road. Yes, spelled just like that.

Half of the gas station/convenience store was devoted to the sale of liquor. I looked around, hearing more country twang from the loudspeakers, and saw several shelves full of booze. Hey, the locals needed something to keep them warm. Several dead animal heads hung on the walls over the shelves, deer and elk and a mountain goat or two. My eyes fell on one of the bottles of liquor, a cinnamon red of Fireball Whiskey, with a handwritten sign over it that said “Buy two bottles of Fireball, get a free fishing lure! Inquire at the desk!”

As I munched on my trail mix and sipped on my hot, and terrible, gas station coffee in the car, I realized I had thirty minutes before my shift began. I grabbed my phone and Googled Rock Springs, Wyoming, figuring I may as well learn about the city I was in.

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I read about how, in 1885, the Union Pacific Coal Department was able to hire Chinese workers at a lower wage than White workers, so they, of course, hired more Chinese. The White workers rioted in an explosion of racial tension, burned down 75 homes, and killed dozens of Chinese. I didn’t see a single report of a White person killed. I read how the local newspapers at the time had sympathized with the White man’s plight, and how 16 men had been arrested for the murders, but all were acquitted one month later, met by the cheers of their loved ones for their heroic actions. It was with a pit in my stomach that I thought of recent anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic content in the media, in the current presidential campaign, and I wonder, for the one millionth time in my life, if we have evolved as a species at all.

I read about local industries and businesses and politics, about forms of entertainment (shooting ranges and the rodeo), about the long history of the state. And before long, it’s time to step outside the car, back into the biting wind, and to prepare for another day of work, this time in a strange and faraway place.

Later, I check into my hotel, and the kindly front desk attendant informs me that I’m just in time for happy hour. I shrug. It’s a week night, and only 5 pm, “But the drinks are free!” she exclaims. “One hour only!”

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And so 30 minutes later, a grandmotherly bartender mixes me a rather strong Rum and Coke. I take a few sips and make eye contact with the severed moose head hanging on the wall in front of me.

“He’s a beauty, ain’t he?”

I look over and see a woman behind me that I hadn’t noticed before. She looks as though she just woke up, her hair disheveled and in her nightgown, a large pink muumuu that drowns her. She takes a large handful of Lays potato chips from a bag she is holding and somehow fits the entire handful of chips in her mouth, cramming them in and not missing a crumb. She has no teeth, so she makes large gumming noises as she munches down on them loudly.

“Um, the moose?” I look back at his marble eyes. “Yup, a real beauty.”

The woman finishes gumming her bite and takes a swallow of the pink alcoholic mixture from the cup in front of her. “I bet he’s been dead fifty years.”

I look at her as she takes another handful, and realize I have nothing to say except, “Yup.”

And this is my life right now, I think. Me and this woman and a moose head at 5 on a week night, drinking free alcohol in a hotel bar in frozen Wyoming.

I give myself a little mental toast and take another sip.

 

Boozed

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My brother vomited on me when I was 7.

He came into the room drunk, at age 15, and vomited sticky alcohol on my bed, where I’d been sleeping. When I jumped out of bed, I landed in more of it, slipping in it and landing on the floor.

Twenty years later, I was working as a substance abuse professional  in a drug and alcohol treatment center on a reservation, primarily treating Native American clients. Despite having never tasted alcohol or drugs in any form, I assessed my clients on their alcohol struggles, pretending I was an expert. Teaching my group of adolescent males one evening, I assigned them to draw a picture of their first experience with alcohol, using markers, crayons, and colored pencils. On my blank sheet of paper, I drew a childlike image of my seven-year old self being vomited on.

During my time as a substance abuse professional, I saw some of the worst consequences of drug and alcohol dependency. Men who violently harmed others while using. Drunk driving related accidents that resulted in death. Children taken away by Child Protective Services due to parents using drugs in front of them. Sexual assaults. Prison sentences. And I saw the injustices of the system, stacked against the offender who has no money, endless lists of court requirements to accomplish that make holding a job and having family responsibilities impossible.

These experiences shaped my religious and cultural beliefs: that alcohol was bad, bad, bad. Growing up Mormon, I learned about the Word of Wisdom, a religious teaching that teaches Church members to avoid alcohol, drugs, and coffee. The teaching was pretty direct, but the culture that formed around it was one of distaste, disgust, and condemnation. I saw those who chose to drink alcohol, or worse, do drugs, as selfish, poor decision makers with little self-control who needed to make better choices and be called to repentance.

And then it was suddenly Christmas Day, 2011, and I tried my first sip of alcohol, a frothy taste of spiked egg nog. I was 33 years old. The drink was good, tasty, and I remember getting a feeling of anticlimactic awareness afterwards; I drank and everything in the world was still fine. A few weeks later, I tried my first vodka-cranberry, and a few weeks after that my first rum-and-coke. They were delicious and made me feel happy, comfortable, and relaxed. It took me longer to try beer and wine, hard alcohol and various mixed drinks. And I learned a very simple lesson: drinking alcohol is fun so long as you drink smart and responsibly.

I’ve come to love that loose relaxed feeling a drink can bring, like all the little wires of stress in my brain unravel and I just want to smile. It’s like slipping into a hot bath tub, that initial rush. Yet many make that fatal mistake of drinking more and more to prolong the result, but more leads to dizziness, muddled thoughts, electric brain and poor equilibrium and decision-making.

I’m 37 now and I still approach the world with a certain amount of naivete and innocence, but I do take care of myself. Last night, I went out dancing with a few friends. I had two drinks during the course of the evening, and smiled and relaxed and danced. And then I was done drinking and had water instead. I watched as some of the people around me started to get sloppy, slouching against walls, unable to stand up straight or walk well. I watched some get flirtatious with others, making their dates or spouses jealous. One man flirted with me aggressively until I rebuffed him, and I saw him ten minutes later drunk and asleep on a corner floor.

Many members of my family still have a very negative reaction to the idea of drinking. A beer in the fridge or a public mention of an alcoholic beverage elicits a sad, ashamed face, like the ones I give when I hear about some sort of deep offense or betrayal.

In most areas of my life, I dwell comfortably in the middle, on my own terms. I like alcohol, carefully paced and planned for, and enjoy the relaxation and sunny outlook it can bring. I prepare before I drink, making sure I’m hydrated and fed, and that I’ve exercised earlier in the day. Yet I get weary of those who drink too much or who don’t take care of themselves. Drinking responsibly means self-care before and after and arranging rides home.

My relationship with alcohol has changed a lot over the years. It can literally destroy. But a drink now and then is nothing to be ashamed over.

the Supper Club

empty-stage-and-micThe walls are purple, and I think what an interesting choice.

I can picture Liberace on the stage years ago, Freddie Mercury and Mae West and Judy Garland and Cher and the Solid Gold Dancers and Joan Rivers, perhaps Merv Griffin and Paul Lynde. I can picture the crowds of men in Palm Springs, gay men who are out and proud, laughing with the wine and beer flowing. Drag shows and thick curtains, late nights and cocaine, alcohol and dancing.

I imagine what Palm Springs must have been like back then, the freedom, the glamour of it all, out and gay, colorful and sexy and exhausting, all those men tired of hiding and now there and free to be themselves.

I’m in a “supper club” in early January, 2016, in Palm Springs, California, and a smile comes to my face as I picture what this place used to be, and then I look at what it is now. Times have changed. Gay people are out everywhere, and with new phone apps they no longer have to go to clubs and bars and health spas to meet each other. But this place has that feel to it, still here, still entertainment-focused, but with such a different feel.

I look over the crowd. Mostly older, and an even mix of gay and straight couples, most of them likely tourists here on the close of their vacations. A couple in their 70s with Irish accents sits at the table next to me, both small and thin, and they have finished a bottle of wine between them. At the table just behind me, an older gay man is loudly telling his friends about meeting a younger man “on the Internet”, something he apparently vowed he would never do, and he boasts at how the sex was amazing. An older couple sits behind me, a man and a woman, who are talking to their gorgeous adult daughter, lauding her for her success as an interior designer.

The waiter makes his way from table to table, clearing plates and refilling drinks. I order something yummy and sweet and cleverly named, and my date gets a glass of wine, and it’s clear the show is about to start. I haven’t been to a stand-up comedy performance in years. My date and I have been seated right next to the stage. I take a sip of my drink and lean over, whispering, “you know the comedian is totally going to make fun of us, right?”

A few minutes later, a woman in her early 50s comes on stage and delivers her routine, something you can tell she has done for years before. She cracks jokes about her difficult past, her daughter being on the straight and narrow, and her judgmental mother who now has selective Alzheimer’s, and closes with a long joke about her grandmother giving her sex advice. It’s corny and fun, and I find myself laughing good-naturedly.

A heavyset man in his late forties comes out next, with his opening line “Hello, gays and gals, I’m only gay on the weekends.” He tells jokes about growing up Jewish and gay and spends plenty of time looking around the crowd, interacting with them and making fun of them. Most of the crowd is buzzed on alcohol now and they are laughing hysterically at the jokes made at their own expense. The elderly Irish couple keep speaking loudly, interrupting his routine, and the comedian takes it in stride, teasing them but being sweet and kind.

“Well, now, who do we have here?” The comedian takes a look at my date and I at our table. “They put you two right up front for me, how nice.” Throughout the evening, he keeps referencing us, talking about us in between his jokes. “I can’t decide which one I want to take home and tie to a chair. Either of you want to volunteer?” Another time, he winks at me, and says “See you after the show.”

Toward the end of his routine, the comedian performs a hilarious version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, as if an overly excited auditioner on a reality television show were singing it. He steps off the stage and promptly sits in my laugh, wooing me a bit to the delight of the audience.

And then soon the show is over. The supper club with the purple walls begins to clear out as people gather their coats, empty their drinks, and head to the door, laughing. I take a moment to sit there, surveying the room, wondering about the history of the place again, getting lost in time for a moment. I once had a psychic tell me that when I enter a building, I bear with me the entire history of the place and the people who dwelt there, and a smile crosses my face as I realize that I’m doing it again, whatever it is.

On my way out, I stop to shake the comedian’s hand, expecting him to flirt again, but he is suddenly very  mild-mannered. He shakes my hand, gives a grin, and says, “I hope you enjoyed the show”, and I realize that he is very different off-stage than he was on.

I take one last look at the purple walls, feeling all of the joy that has been had here, and I wonder what the room is like when it is quiet, when the business closes and all that is left is the history of the night before and the coming of the next show. I carry that history with me as I step into the chilly air outside.