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.

Silver

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Seattle Part 7: Halloween in the Big Gay House

November, 2014

After a little over a month in my new city, I accepted an invitation to live with a couple of new friends in their large home. They had a spare room open, and the rent was affordable. It was a brand new beginning once again.

I moved in at the beginning of November, on a week end day, and as I unloaded boxes, I had this sense that I was being given another chance to do things right. This could be my college years, those I had missed out on the first time around. I’d been so caught up in Mormonism that I had drowned myself in church, missionary service, school, and work. In college, I had never dated, never sat around with friends on the couch getting high and laughing at movies, never cuddled with a guy who stayed over late. I’d had roommates, but I’d been deep in the closet then, inauthentic. And here, a house of young attractive professionals, who seemed to live the very life I’d been looking for. There was a hot tub, and a big kitchen, and everyone seemed confident and fun. They called it the Big Gay House.

I’d only been there for a few hours and was barely settling in when I learned the roommates planned to go out for the evening to the local gay bars to celebrate Halloween. It was a few days after the holiday, but they assured me everyone would be dressed up and ready for a very fun evening of drinking and dancing. I’d been out to the clubs a few times since I’d moved here, but never with a group of friends like this. I had very fond memories of dancing with my friends in Utah, and this sounded delightful.

So that evening, after it got dark, I put on my slightly scandalous boxer costume: red silky shorts, boxing gloves, a red cape over my shoulders, and a black stripe drawn over my nose. I was shirtless, and wore tennis shoes, and it was cold outside, but I was working hard at becoming more comfortable in my body, and this seemed like a nice chance to celebrate.

The roommates offered to drive to the club, knowing a good place to park, and as we headed outside I realized how briskly chilly it was, and how little I was wearing. We laughed together and soon arrived at the club. I reminded the guys that I didn’t have a house key yet, and asked how late they wanted to stay out, and they said they would play it by ear.

An hour later, I was on the dance floor, slowly sipping a vodka cranberry and dancing with a very cute guy, when I looked up and realized I couldn’t see my new friends anywhere. I kept dancing for another 30 minutes or so before excusing myself. I scanned the dance floor, the patio, the bar, and the sidewalk outside the club and couldn’t find them anywhere. I sent a text, asking where they were, and thirty minutes later I got the answer that they had decided to walk to another club, Neighbors, one about a half mile away. “Sorry we didn’t tell you! Must have forgot!”

Frustrated, I clutched my arms around myself in the cold and briskly walked to the next club, where I paid a cover fee to get in. This club was packed full, but mostly with straight couples, I realized. I saw the roommates out on the dance floor, dancing and drinking, clearly enjoying themselves. They saw me and gave me huge enthusiastic hugs, and the evening went on from there. I danced, had a second drink, and relaxed into the evening, as I watched the predatory behavior of a few straight college guys chasing girls around the dance floor, the girls pretending to be demure. I’d never been in a club like this, gays openly dancing among the straight guys, the music blaring, the drinks strong, and most of the room in costume. It was magical in its way. But as 2 am rolled around, this being much much later than I normally stay out, I began to get very tired. I looked around and realized that, once again, the roommates were gone.

Over the next 30 minutes, multiple text messages went unanswered. They were gone. I walked back to where we had parked the car, and it too was gone. They’d left me there. Simply forgotten me.

It was now past freezing outside, and I began to realize I didn’t have a key. I opened my phone up and got an Uber, barely remembering my  new address to get home. A few minutes later, I was at my new home, the roommate’s car in the driveway. The house was dark. I walked up to the front door, where I could see one of the roommates passed out on the couch. The other must be asleep in his room upstairs. It was nearly 3 am now.

I knocked. I rang the doorbell. I knocked again. Then on the window. I shouted through the window. More doorbell. I called both of their phones and could hear them ringing. More doorbell. More knocking. Finally, the roommate on the couch looked up, stumbled to the door to unlock it and let me in, and then walked, without a word, up the stairs to sleep.

I entered the house, shivering, and closed the door to my new home behind me. This was my first night here. I hadn’t even unpacked my suitcase. I’d been forgotten, left outside. I’d wanted the adventures of a college student, and, well, I guess this is what it was going to be like. Drunken dancing until 3 am? Left behind by friends? Shivering on a front porch in only a pair of shorts in the middle of the night? Is this what I had been after?

In my new room, I pulled the covers up over myself. I was simmering with self-shame, with anger. I was 35 years old. I’d given up most everything to come here, to find myself. A thousand miles away, my sons slept in their small beds. I missed them so much that I physically ached. And what had it all been for? This?

I closed my eyes, exhausted. But before I fell asleep, I vowed to myself anew that I would become healthy. Strong. I would do it on my terms. For me. For them.

 

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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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.