A tickle when sweat drips from my armpit, down the side of my ribcage. A techno number—sampling, of all things, the theme from Braveheart—too loud for me to think. A whole lot of lights in a whole lot of colors and it’s total sensory overload.
“Fuck,” I say to myself. “Fuck, fuck, I am so fucked.”
And I really am fucked. Got in way over my head this time. Inching through a crowd of people—happy, dancing people—I see their polo shirts, skinny jeans, their leather shoes and I don’t fit in at all. My loose sweater, cargo pants, my sneakers—they’re new and not too shabby but still I can’t compete. I’m not happy and I’m sure-as-shit not dancing.
Hugo Boss all up in my nostrils, I choke a bit. It’s everywhere, like one of these sharply dressed folks spontaneously combusted and the fire sprinklers sprayed cologne. Me, smelling of Old Spice anti-perspirant. I want my money back.
Through the sea of people, I pass like a modern-day Moses, find myself at the bar. The most fortunate turn all night far as I’m concerned. Give me beer or give me death. I sit on a stool, close my eyes and wait for the bartender.
Music still pounding. So loud it’s beyond sound. So loud I feel it, causes my liver to twitch. I try a meditation exercise a friend once taught me. Big breath in, now imagine you’re a wave washing up on the beach—peaceful, pristine. Exhale and you roll back out to sea—beautiful, the natural order of things…
“Want a drink, or a nap?” someone says. Snaps me back.
“Huh...uh…draft beer…” I start. Then think better. If my shoes, my scent haven’t given me away, I don’t want my adult beverage to do the job. “Or, forget that. Green apple martini.”
The bartender laughs. Big, earthy chuckle. It shakes my bones and combined with the thumping techno, I fear I may implode. A gold tooth glows in his mouth and for some reason the guy’s wearing sunglasses. Even though he’s indoors. Even though it’s night.
“That’s a girlie drink,” he says. “And we don’t serve those here if you get my drift.” Another heavy laugh and he slaps my shoulder. I squirm, realize I’m even more fucked than I thought.
Before I revise my order, two shots hit the bar. The bartender shows his gold tooth—I guess that’s a smile.
“On me,” he says. “Your first time here, no?”
Nod. We each down a shot.
“Loosen up,” he says. “Everyone’s first time is sometime.” Can’t argue with that logic. “You’ll fit right in.” He lifts his sunglasses to wink then moves down the bar to another customer.
I swivel on my stool, look at the dance floor. People. They’re enjoying themselves, and for a moment I wonder if I should join. I wonder if I should jump in. Dive in. Sink or swim. I wonder how I let myself get into this mess. Then I wonder where the bathroom is. Because I really have to piss.
The men's room, first thing I notice—before the erotic yet tasteful painting on the wall—how clean the place is. No crumpled paper towels inches from the trash can—some guys have terrible aim. No puddles near the urinals—like I said. And it smells of Hugo Boss. Which now, I’m getting used to.
I saddle up, face a large canvas with a naked woman’s watercolored behind and make sure to steady my stream. Lest I risk blowing my cover again.
Washing my hands, another patron enters the piss parlor. Tall and blonde and has a wine colored shirt. He smiles when I carefully place my used paper towel in the trash. Then he extends a hand.
“Walt,” he says. “Nice to meet you.”
This is it. Work it. Time to work it. “Hi Walt, I’m Josh.” We shake.
“You’ve never been here before have you?”
“No. That obvious?”
“It’s just, you have quite a distinguished…style. And that’s something I don’t forget.”
Not too bad. No sir. Maybe not so fucked after all. Maybe this was actually a good idea.
“So,” Walt says. “How’s this compare to your regular joint?”
“My regular joint?”
“You know. Your regular bar”
“Oh. To be honest, I’ve never been to a gay bar before.”
Walt smiles. Knowing, smug. “A newbie,” he says. “Cute. Why don’t you meet me at the bar in twenty? I’d love to introduce you to my boyfriend. We’ll buy you a shot. Nobody should drink alone.”
Boyfriend? Flirting, really it was friendly banter. Not fucked, really I’m totally fucked.
“Thanks,” I say. “See you in a few.”
~ ~ ~
Last weekend was when I decided to give it a go. It was supposed to be an experiment. It was supposed to teach me a thing or two. It was supposed to change my life. What it wasn’t, was my idea.
Saturday morning, left my apartment and walked around the corner and up the alley toward my favorite bakery. Duke was there, hunched over on a milk crate. Always.
“Hey Duke,” I said. “What’s cracking?”
“What’s cracking? They’re trying to kill us is all. Same as last week and the week before and every week since They realized we ain’t going nowhere!” His beard was so thick, so bushy I couldn’t see his lips. Words rained from a cloud of grizzled hair.
“Nobody’s trying to kill us, Duke. Hell, if anyone wanted to kill you they’d have done it by now. You never leave the alley.”
“Oh, you’re wrong. You are WRONG! They’re killing me alright, They’re killing you too. They don’t have to know where I sleep at night to get me. And They don’t discriminate between noblemen like myself and common peasants.”
Duke, he swore that was a title. Swore he descended from Scottish nobility. Maybe. But I was still pretty sure that Duke was only his name.
“Who’s trying to kill us?” I asked, squatted on my haunches.
“Who do you think? The Government, like always. They have big charts and computer-made-graphs and They figure ain’t enough room on this earth for us all. Running low on food and fuel and forests and They take it as duty to thin the herd. Well I’ve lived in an alley for a half decade through and I ain’t thin yet. So good luck to them is what I say.”
I first met Duke the day I moved into my apartment. He was making the rare trip from his ally to a corner bodega. Carton of milk in one hand, a half smoked cigarette wedged in his beard.
It was a busy afternoon. People going this way, that way. Trying to make it home, trying to mind their own business. Duke, the only one to offer me help with boxes. We finished and I tried to buy him dinner. But he was too proud for that. Said a good nobleman helps his subjects, asks nothing in return.
“So, the Government’s trying to kill us to curb overpopulation?”
“Oh, They’re not trying. They’re goddamn succeeding. They’re smart you see. Doing it slowly. Slowly but surely.”
“Duke man, you’re paranoid. I’m gonna grab a bagel, you want a Coke or something?”
“Ha! See, that’s my point, brother. That is my point. You buy the Coke and what do you get? All the sugar They can dissolve in water. Sure enough They’ve put you one step closer to a heart attack.”
“Then I’ll get you a Diet Coke.”
“Diet Coke, chock full of chemicals! You’ll get the Big C for sure. That’s what They do—poison you. Microwave some food, just turns it radioactive. Plop down in front of the tele, They beam radiation right to your brain. They’re taking us out and ain’t a thing to do about it.”
“So why worry? If we can’t do anything about it, why even worry?”
“Who’s worried, brother? I’m just warning you—live your life while you got it. ‘Cause you never know when you’re gonna go.”
“Thanks, Duke. I appreciate that.”
“Because Josh, I worry for you.”
Wow. The man lives in an alley, babbles conspiracy theories and he’s worried for me. Talk about a downer.
“Why’s that Duke? I’m doing alright.”
“Because a man your age, he should be thinking about one thing and one thing only. You know what I mean, my boy?”
Nearly said keeping a roof over my head, realized that might have been on the rude side. Shook a no.
“Women, brother. Beautiful, beautiful women. And long as I’ve known you, ain’t ever seen you with a nice lass on your arm. Not once. Ain’t ever seen you bring one to the bakery for a spot of breakfast after a hard night’s work. If you get where I’m coming from…”
“Ever think I might not score points by introducing a lady to the local bum?” And I felt like a grade-A cocksucker right off.
“Josh, that’s cold. But a benevolent ruler never holds a slip of the tongue against a lowly peon. Just try to show more respect in the future.”
Thing was, women were kind of a sore subject with me. There was something about the fairer sex I didn’t get. They seemed foreign—exotic, mysterious, intimidating. They humbled me like nothing else.
Two months ago I vowed off the singles scene after one particularly shitty incident.
At a club on the North end of town, I had tried to drink myself courageous. Seven pints in, decided to give it a go. Stumbling to the far end of the bar, I took a seat next to a short, dark haired woman with over-glossed lips. So shiny I could see my reflection in them.
“Uh, would you like a drink?” I said, legs twitching something fierce.
Forced, tightlipped smile and she blew a quick breath from her nose. No words, pointed to a nearly full margarita sitting before her.
“Right…well, maybe later,” I said, watching myself go red in her lips. Just sitting next to her for another few minutes—the silence burning my ears—before I retreated out the door.
Back in the alley I tried explaining to Duke how I’ve never been smooth with the women.
“What do you mean, ‘smooth’?”
“I get nervous, flustered. Can’t be myself.”
“Well, how’s it you ain’t nervous with me. Hell, I might lack a set of ovaries. But kid, I’m kinda intense. Most people, they avoid me. You seem ‘smooth’ enough.”
“Too bad you’re not a young lady, Duke. I’d be on easy street.”
“Well brother, maybe you need some practice,” Duke said and I think he was smiling. But with that beard it’s anyone’s guess.
“What’re you getting at?”
“Well, like you said you need to work at some smoothness. It ain’t happening with the ladies, so maybe, maybe you oughtta try your shtick on the dudes. You know, for practice. Then take your learnings, really knock them dames for a loop.”
“Duke,” I said. “Might be you’re on to something.”
Next Week: the conclusion of Next Time's a Charm