Seattle Part 4: First Date

September, 2014

With enthusiasm, I downloaded all of the dating apps when I arrived in Seattle. I wasn’t in a hurry, but I was enthusiastic. Utah had felt so full of men who had the exact same origin story I did, all former Mormons who had grown up ashamed of themselves and were now trying to find their way in the world. So many were still struggling with depression, anxiety, self-loathing, and major family and religious issues that in ways, dates in Utah felt the same, over and over again. I longed for something new.

I had a few good friends in Seattle before I moved there, but, not surprisingly, they were all former Mormons also, given my social circles. In fact, a lot of them still went to church, to a local ward that was very gay friendly and welcomed gay couples into the weekly meetings with open arms. I’d been invited to go to church several times, but I had very little interest, at least for now. I wanted a fresh beginning, something new. I wanted movie nights with friends, and a local bar where they knew my name, and new routines. I’d been craving that ‘brand new’ feeling my entire life.

I immediately found a small corner coffee shop, close to where I was staying, one that opened ridiculously early. It was there I could wile away the morning hours and make plans for the future. And it was there I first starting chatting with Devon.

When we first matched on Tinder, my stomach fluttered with excitement. That we matched at all had meant there was mutual attraction, a swipe in the right direction that indicated there was interest. In his photos, he was absolutely stunning. Deep brown eyes, rich cocoa skin, a huge brilliant smile. He was an impeccable dresser, in amazing shape, and I could tell he chose his words carefully.

Devon and I spent a few days chatting. He knew I was a father, one who had recently relocated to Washington, “for work” I had said. And he told me about his upbringing in central Washington, his career in the financial industry, and his love for Seattle. He talked about coming out to his family as a teenager, and having a loving and strong relationship with them, and I couldn’t help but wonder how differently my story would have been if I could say the same. We exchanged ‘good night’ and ‘good morning’ messages and called each other ‘handsome’, and then he asked me on an evening date to his favorite restaurant, and my stomach filled with butterflies.

And so, Thursday night, less than a week after I had arrived in my new city, I found my way to Pioneer Square for a date. I felt like Mary Tyler Moore at the start of her show, taking a big risk by moving to Minneapolis and throwing her hat into the air, as the singer proclaimed, “You can have a town, why don’t you take it? You might just make it after all.”

Devon was even more handsome in person. He wore a snug white shirt, a dark blue jacket, form-fitting slacks and black shoes. His smile was amazing. I was in a baggy yellow button-down shirt, tucked in, and dark slacks. (I’d never been a great dresser). I felt out of my league, with my crooked smile and slightly out-of-shape body, but he seemed interested. He had a genuineness about him, but a directness as well. He was the kind of guy who could make you feel welcome, and then order for you and get it exactly right.

We ordered some delicious food and drinks (a rum-and-coke for me, a hard lemonade for him), and we talked about my first impressions of Seattle, my upcoming job, and my fresh start in the city. But there was something on Devon’s mind, something bothering him. He leaned in and touched my hand briefly over the table.

“I’ve really enjoyed our connection over the past few days, Chad. But I want to get something out of the way quick. You have sons, and I love that about you, but why aren’t they here with you?”

I smiled and sighed. Part of me wanted to make up some alternate version of my story, something that would allow me to escape from my roots. Besides, I was tired of crying.

“They are back in Utah, with their mother. I was married before coming out.”

“Oh!” He was genuinely surprised. He took a sip of his lemonade, then continued. “And Utah. Why are you here, and not there?”

I felt my defenses rise a bit, and I used a few too many words to explain myself. Even as I spoke, I was aware that I sounded defensive and anxious.

“I, well, I needed a fresh start. I came out later in life, and I wanted a chance to figure me out in a new place. My sons, they are 5 and 2, and they are amazing, we talk every day, and I’ll see them monthly and send them lots of things. I’m a great dad, and their mom is working with me on this. I just, I grew up Mormon, not in Utah but in Missouri, and it was only a few years ago that I stopped being Mormon, and everything in Utah is Mormon. Everything. Even the gay population. I just wanted to find me away from all of that, see how things can be when I’m not bogged down by all of that religious shit. It’s just, it was more than I can take. I know that is a lot to hear, first meeting someone, but I want to be honest with you. This is for me, my journey here, but it is also for my kids.”

I watched Devon’s smile fade and his expression go stern. He pulled back from me and settled back into his chair. As I spoke, his arms folded in a defensive position over his chest. He stayed silent for several seconds after I finished. And as he spoke, it was my turn to go pale.

“We don’t know each other well yet, but let me tell you something about me. A few years ago, I went through a bad break-up, and I was really struggling spiritually. After a long search, I found a religion I wanted to be a part of. I joined the Mormon church and I go every week faithfully. Obviously, I’m not overly strict about the rules, I drink and date men, but I believe in it. And you left all that behind, plus your children. I don’t think this is going to work between us.”

The waiter brought our food, and we made casual and very uncomfortable conversation as we ate swiftly. And then Devon was gone, with a handshake and the bill still on the table.

I drove home and cried my eyes out, yet again. But I couldn’t help but laugh. How could it be that in one of the biggest cities in America, one with an enormous gay population, that I had connected to a gay black man who had converted to Mormonism? How could that possibly be? Was the universe trying to teach me some grand, painful lesson? Ugh, how was this possible? This was the kind of plot twist in television shows that was simply unbelievable.

I didn’t message Devon again, and it would be several weeks before I ran into him again, on a Sunday when I would try church out with some gay Mormon friends. But that night, I had a good cry, then a good laugh, and then I logged back in to Tinder to see who else might be out there.

A Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille

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The floor was thick with sawdust, on purpose. The signs hanging on the busy walls (those filled with animal heads, kitsch, and signatures in black marker) described how the Red Dog bar in Juneau had been built in 1912, to entertain the gold rushers here. I pictured the classic Wild West setup, with girls named Kitty in scandalous clothing, men in hats playing loud poker at the tables, and swinging saloon doors. They’d done a beautiful job making this space feel just like that. Crowded walls, greasy food, cheap beer, and a man who looked like an old-timey prospector playing the guitar on the small stage up front.

He sang a melancholy Johnny Cash song while I ordered a rum and Coke, casually observing the other patrons. The employees were dressed in period costumes. I pictured them here every day, making drinks, fries, and oyster shots for the thousands of cruise passengers who docked in the city in for mere hours. The tourists hit this gem of a town like a plague of locusts, buzzing in and out, consuming everything, until they flew back to their buffets, drinks, and pools aboard the ship. Two or three ships every day, clogging the streets, then leaving the place quiet in the evenings, for just the locals and the more long-term tourists, the ones more like me.

Four white couples sat all around me, and at least three of them were shit-faced drunk. At 8 pm on a Sunday night. The other couple, they never looked up from their phones, and I never saw them sip their beers. I casually listened to the stutters of conversation I could hear around me, but I tuned them out and instead focused on the singer. His leathered skin, his twisting white mustache, the oak barrel country twang in his voice, it was all just delicious. I sipped my drink as he sang.

“This next song is a favorite of mine,” the singer announced. “It’s by my old friend, Kenny Rogers. He told me about this woman, the one named Lucille, personally. He wrote a song about her! Sing along with the chorus if you know it.” He clearly didn’t actually know Kenny Rogers, but it somehow added to the authenticity of the experience.

And in his beautiful register, he began “Lucille.” This song automatically conjured up a bitter and happy nostalgia within me. How many times had I heard this classic country song in my teenage years, when my stepfather was in one of his good moods, filling the house with joy, love, and consistency. But those periods always followed an incident of extreme violence. Someone struck with an open hand, or grounded for weeks for with no cause, or called names until they cried, and then on came the happy music. Into the room came “Lucille.” Had I even heard this song in the two decades of my life since my stepfather had been gone? It felt strange to hear it now.

He sang, using Rogers’ words, of the bar in Toledo where a lonely and overwhelmed Lucille walked in and sat on a nearby stool, pounding back a few drinks. You don’t learn until later in the song that Lucille is trapped in a bad marriage with four hungry children and an overworked farmer for a husband. But in the second line of the song, you learn how she takes off her wedding ring, and she shortly announces that she’s looking for a good time.

But the singer changed things, trying to get a laugh. He sang, “On a barstool, she took off her clothes.” He stopped playing, then said, “Oh, did I say clothes? I of course meant ring!” He cackled, then kept laughing as the drunk crowd just talked over his music. The words tell of the singer moving down next to Lucille, seeing an opportunity with a willing woman, but immediately the singer saw the woman’s husband enter, a mountain of a man with calloused hands. The first chorus echoed that man’s words to his wife, and I sang along loudly.

“‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille, with four hungry children and a crop in the field. I’ve had some bad times, lived through some sad times, but this time the hurtin’ won’t heal. You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.'”

After the chorus, the singer stopped, explaining that that wasn’t the way it really happened. In the real story, as Rogers had told it to him, he said, Lucille’s husband had come in and let Lucille just how he felt. He’d walked in yelling, telling Lucille exactly what she was.

“The real chorus goes like this. It’s almost the same, but just sing it like this,” he said. “‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.‘ Then you just call out what her husband called her in that bar. ‘You bitch! You whore! You slut!’ Those are the actual words used in the real story! See, just try it with me. ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut!’ Hey, you did great! Doesn’t that feel good! Let’s try the chorus all together now! ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut! ‘With four hungry children, and a crop in the field!'” 

I was astounded. The audience all around me screamed the words out enthusiastically, eager to slut-shame Lucille as much as possible, or perhaps just thrilled to get to shout those words in public. The girl in front of me, the whitest white girl of all, shouted the words extra loud and with enthusiasm, her middle fingers raised up for effect. “You bitch! You whore! You slut!” she repeated, before taking a swig of her beer, drunk laughing, then leaning over to her husband and whispering a secret. “That’s hilarious, that slut!”

The song went on, into the third voice. The singer ordered whiskey and took Lucille back to his hotel room, but was unable to go through with it, because he couldn’t stop thinking about what the husband said. Cue the second chorus, and the audience happily called Lucille a whore and a bitch one more time.

The singer took his hand off the guitar and leaned into the microphone. “Now, on the radio, that was the end of the song. Kenny Rogers couldn’t get away with publishing the fourth verse, the censors wouldn’t allow it. But he told it to me. Ladies and gentlemen, right here, in the Red Dog, you can hear the real ending of the classic song, Lucille, are you ready?” The crowd cheered. I felt a little nervous. This man was not treating Lucille well, and I just knew it was about to get worse.

In the secret fourth verse, he sang about how Lucille had left the hotel room, and so the singer had returned to the bar, where he had met two sisters. He took both sisters back to his hotel room, took of their clothes, and was about to fool around with both of them, when Lucille came back into the hotel room, still wanting to be with him, apparently. And to get her to go away, now that he had better prospects, the singer had repeated the husband’s words in a third chorus.

“‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut!'”

I walked out of Red Dog, my mind spinning with the whole experience. I felt disgusted. I felt strangely protective of Lucille, though she was fictional. She had once represented happy times in my home. I didn’t like how the crowd had slut-shamed her, blaming her for seeking an escape from her tortured marriage. I didn’t like the man in the song and how he’d shamed Lucille while he himself was trying to sleep with two sisters. I knew it was all supposed to be a joke, that people there had been laughing, but I kept hearing the crowd chanting bitch, slut, and whore, and I kept seeing that woman with her raised middle fingers. They shamed Lucille for sexualized behavior while screaming with enthusiasm for Kenny Rogers and his supposed debauchery. It was gross. Lucille didn’t deserve that, I decided. And then I remembered the venue, the atmosphere of the people there.

The floor was thick with sawdust, on purpose.

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.