Winter’s Playground

February, 1994

We are in Michael’s boyfriend’s apartment getting into Michael’s boyfriend’s bag. Michael is gay before anyone else in Pittsburgh. He wears scarves and earrings and looks beautiful but doesn’t act like a priss. People talk behind his back but he doesn’t care because he’s not insecure, it’s just who he is.

I’ve never met Michael’s boyfriend; he stays in the back calling out orders that Michael responds to right away. We have to be careful with his boyfriend’s bong because it’s from the 1970s, all snakes and claws and eyeballs and skulls. It doesn’t look like you could break it even if you wanted to.

I’ve been living on the south side for a few months and scored a job at Arabica cafe, on Carson street. It’s my first winter in Pittsburgh and my apartment is small but heats up fast. I don’t cook but I’m old enough to buy liquor and there’s a brand of vodka called Crystal Palace that comes in a plastic jug and costs only $10. The job at Arabica pays $5 an hour plus tips and they’re only giving me 20 hours a week but I put my name on the sub list and get calls to cover shifts when someone doesn’t feel like coming in, which happens a lot.

When Michael responds to his boyfriend his voice changes like he’s talking to his dad. His boyfriend is Japanese-American and older; there’s a painting above the fireplace with him wearing a kimono looking stern. He has this aggressive look but you can tell it’s a put on and besides, the kimono has a floral pattern and you can’t be much of a badass wearing something like that. He looks like one of the guys from KISS with his hair in a bun and pasty Asian makeup and I wonder if he wears it when the two of them are in bed.

Michael has a tea cup with crushed ice he uses to fill the bottom of the bong and tops it with water from a pitcher. He breaks apart a bud the size of a rabbit’s foot from the biggest bag of weed I’ve ever seen and hands the bong to me. It’s the first time I’ve gotten high with a gay man but I’m desperate, and Michael’s taken me under his wing since I’m new at Arabica and don’t know anyone. I get the feeling we’re friends now and weigh the implications of that since Michael’s not well liked and I want to be.

I’m trying to settle into the high and relax when Michael disappears through French doors to see what his boyfriend needs. He has some condition and doesn’t work, collects checks from the government. My eyelids are hot and my glasses steam up the way fog forms in the morning. They have pictures on the mantel fanned out at the same angle like a pair of wings with a gaudy candelabra in the middle. Michael’s been gone a long time and I should probably excuse myself but that seems rude, and I have to wonder what I’m doing: if it’s a sign I’m gay that I’m not even aware of. And that would explain why Eric, the manager at Arabica, hired me: he thought I was gay right from the start. But then he joked “another breeder slipped through” when he found out I’m straight. Why would he think that? Do I emit some gay “vibe?” An expression or attitude, some softness in the eyes? Is it the way gay men wear their jeans that sends a signal to other gays, like forest animals communicating they’re in heat?

There was the time I was 14 and wanted a pair of Guess jeans but wouldn’t ask my parents, they were too expensive. But I found a pair on clearance with a band of pink leather in the back, cowboy style, that didn’t strike me as odd or unmanly or even “gay,” but they were too long and mom had to hem them, and they never looked right because you could see the hem and the cut made my feet look small and ineffectual. Mom asked the sales associate for help, a black man with a sculpted goatee, and in the fitting room he stood behind me in the mirror and took hold of either side of the jeans and yanked them up to exaggerate my butt and ball sack, then took me through the curtains and twirled me around so everyone could see, and mom didn’t know what to say except thanks and do you take Visa?

The walk home is dark, cold and long. Michael offered to call a cab but cabs are expensive and I don’t have much in tips. I wasn’t sure if a hug or handshake made sense so I went with the hug but Michael didn’t expect that and acted funny, and now I have his cologne on me which feels weird. Parts of the walk force me into the street because the sidewalks are slick and people haven’t shoveled so I have to find ruts in the road for a dry path, sometimes wiping out, cutting into the high.

When I get back to the apartment Myki’s door is open, signaling he’s up and wants company. Though we live in separate units we’re connected by a hallway and he’s become a new friend. Some girl from the cafe is over and I think she likes him so I don’t stay too long.

When I climb into bed it’s so cold I have to burrow into my blanket and warm myself up with my breath, then dream I’m on a beach buried in the sand with hands trying to dig me out, but the hands keep scooping and can’t find anything beneath the surface, there’s no body, just the head.

Categories: identity, writing

Tags: ,

10 replies

  1. Bill, this is phenomenal. Did you write this in 1994 or is just about 1994. You’ve captured the homophobia of the time perfectly. In the late 80s my best friend got divorced and came out as gay. All of our friends dropped him. It made no sense to me, he was the exact same person as before, plus his boyfriend was awesome. So many bits of this resonate with me. If you wrote this now, great job on remembering the details of your young adult life. If you wrote it then, I guess I’m a little jealous that you’ve been such a great writer for so long.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jeff! So happy you enjoyed this and thanks for taking the time to let me know. This is the beginning to another crack at a MS I started last month but abandoned. I wrote a version of it in 2014 and then used some journal entries from a trip to the UK to fill it out some more. I’m playing around with a few things but I’m happy you enjoyed it. Lots of interesting connections for me and Pittsburgh recently: if there’s a time and place I’d most want to depict it’s this year and that neighborhood, the south side. Thanks for reading. Bill

      Liked by 2 people

  2. “Do you take Visa?” is hilarious. And a pink leather stripe, eh?

    There is a familiarity here. A music-related story that probably deserves to be told (involving a live music theatre show and a very small after-party).

    But I also thought of the night a colleague/mate and I went for a Vietnamese meal after doing some sort of after-hours workshop at the TAFE college where we both worked. Strolling back down the main Footscray drag (and I suspect Footscray would fit quite comfortably into Pittsburg’s industrial suburbs) a couple of local lads passed us on the footpath. As they drew level, one glanced at us. “Homosexual?”
    Too slow with the quip “Not tonight, thanks” — and probably just as well for our physical well being — it did make me wonder what was being projected (one way or the other).

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a dense, toothy comment Bruce. Footscray is a cool name, I don’t know it. Happy you found that Visa line funny. I’m learning how to do this as I go, you know. Trying to make sense out of things that seem to defy sense, frustrating and odd but most times, fun. Thanks for playing along…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That last paragraph was not what I was expecting. Packs a bit of a surreal wallop, that one. I should have known better though, because that kind of thing is in your writerly genes. Or jeans, maybe. (Har har)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This made me uncomfortable, but in that good way, you know? Recognizing myself but then glad it’s not happening to me. Martin Scorsese “After Hours.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. An amazing piece of writing about relations, struggles and Michael-something that can happen to many among us and what the person may think about on our orientation. I love this fab piece, Bill.

    Liked by 1 person

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