Under the low ceiling is a postage-stamp sized stage four inches off the floor with a wooden stair railing along the side and a red nylon back-curtain. There are three sets of black-painted iron patio furniture, a long polished-wood bar with red-topped wooden stools, a dance pole, a video jukebox and a customer-created painting of clowns. There is a VIP booth, behind a velvet rope and flanked with glitter curtains.
The owners, behind the bar, are one twink and one gym-master in a spaghetti strap tank cut low in front, both in artfully ripped jeans. The gym-master’s parents are celebrating their forty-third wedding anniversary--Valentine's Day--in the VIP booth. The bar seats two rednecks, two gay guys, one underwear boy, one old dude, one crew-cut lady too feisty for the Red Hat Society, a C-cupped thirty-something blonde with a tiny tramp stamp peeking out, my friend Daniel, and me.
The underwear boy’s briefs are a little loose and a lot out of his personal underwear drawer instead of a costume wardrobe. There’s an underwear girl filling out her lace tube shirt and overflowing her fishnet hot-pants with muffin top, confidence and attitude, saying to the next woman down at the bar, “I only been working here since last night, and I gotta talk to that boy about some better underpants.”
Daniel and I snag the last two bar stools, farthest from audience participation when the drag show starts. I check the door behind me labeled THIS DOOR MUST BE UNLOCKED DURING HOURS OF OPERATION. I will never be caught in a burning discotheque.
The twink bartender already knows Daniel wants a glass of red and a glass of water. I have a Shirley Temple with extra cherries. The feisty lady asks Daniel to dance, and they head to the space in front of the stage that is by default the dance floor.
The blonde checks in with me—“You’re not mad, are you? Is that OK?”
I have no idea why she’s asking me, then I realize she thinks Daniel’s my date. “No! It’s fine! Really!”
“That’s my mama! I can’t believe it!” She tosses her hair and grabs my hands to come and dance. Daniel and the feisty lady get down to hip-hop that even to me is “what those kids are listening to these days.” The blonde drops it low and I back away from her ass in time to the music, but I haven’t danced in weeks, maybe months. I love dancing, and I need to check “exercise for 10 minutes” off today’s list. She’s fun as a lipstick-lesbian can be, and we shake and shimmy and both try to lead. I get smoother and smoother at avoiding her breasts when she grabs and aims my hands, making it flirtatious, making it choreography.
Daniel dances with her, and with me, and the blonde and her mama cycle from bar to dance floor. I check out the pole. A little slippery and I’m in jeans, but what the heck. I turn upside down and hold on with one leg while the lead drag queen comes up and blows kisses at my crotch. When I sit back down with a glass of water, the twink bartender takes over a home-made sign and tapes it up, DANCE ON POLE AT OWN RISK. Check.
Daniel has another glass of wine, and the old dude from the middle of the bar walks down and asks me to dance. It takes guts to ask, and older guys generally dance well, so we do. He asks me if Daniel is gonna be mad. I say no, we’re just friends. My dance partner says he’s a country boy. His name is John. He has put his wife into a nursing home. He is a little light on teeth. He asks if I am “ever on the internet” and I am saved from responding by the song ending. John buys us drinks, and Daniel has another glass of wine. I smile and wave and mime a steering wheel.
I dance with Daniel, who is a much better leader than I am a follower. Daniel says he’ll teach me to dance better, but by the standards of this bar, we are on fire. Hot pink jeans on me, I’ve curled my hair, Daniel’s in a shirt with a collar, and we are the hottest (non)couple in the joint. John comes over to give me his phone number and email. He asks Daniel if he’s mad. He buys another round. John says he’s looking for a friend, he’s been married forty years, he doesn’t know what to do. He tells us, “The last time my wife and I had intimacy, she lay there jes’ like a rubber doll. And then she says to me, ‘you go have fun.’”
I ask John if I can hug him, remembering my father in the nursing home, remembering helping him to the bathroom, trying not to see. John hugs me for a long time, and then he leans in and says into my ear, “I like your titties.”
At ten minutes to nine, the bar fills up with straight rednecks for the drag show. There are three queens, older, made up and wigged and girdled and dressed in ways that truly show them off, one country-metal queen in leopard leggings and a sequined bustier, one buxom showgirl queen in red fringe and later a mother-of-the-bride number in blue twinkly crepe, and one comic queen in a fluffy white wig who could join any bridge game or kaffeeklatsch and fit right in. They lip-sync their hearts out, knowing all the words, taking my dollars while looking me in the eye and singing just for me.
John comes back and sets his wallet on the bar, “I’m not all about this.” He puts his hand on his heart. “It’s about this.” Daniel has another glass of wine, on John. I have another glass of water. John asks me to dance again and I do, because in this bar, in Polk County, I am rich and hot and popular. He dips me at the end of the song, and I don’t dodge quickly enough when he kisses my neck. I run out of charity and decibel tolerance and slip out the back door until Daniel’s ready to go.
* * *
Polk County also has a gay-owned everyone bar, with pool tables and dart boards and brighter lighting and softer music. Daniel knows everyone and introduces me. The couple who run it look like good ol’ boys, plaid shirts and baggy shorts, playing the golf video game with their customers. There’s a bright wariness behind their eyes, the look of wolves in sheep’s clothing, the look of survivors cautiously bringing back the gospel of the big city, the places where it gets better, the artsy towns people who live in Polk County have to move to for awhile to get strong enough to come back.
I am on my fifth glass of water. I realize Daniel’s on his fifth or maybe sixth glass of wine, and that he weighs 60 pounds less than he used to, when he starts telling me how wonderful I am. How someday I’m going to be famous for what I do. I feel the same about him, even stone sober, he’s been a mentor and a friend for a long time. His career grounded mine, gave me a runway for take-off. His converted farmhouse is a retreat, a place to look at art and laze on handsome chaise longues, to read each other poetry written years ago, to tell each other anything. We want to lead guided tours to London and India, we want to work on each other’s writing. Between flights of lightning success, we earth each other’s trajectories. We are both changing our lives, but only one of us knows the direction yet.
At the bar, Daniel leans in. “Give me a little kiss,” he says, and I do, because I love him and what we do for each other, because it takes guts to ask a girl to dance, it takes guts to lean forward and maybe have to lean back alone.
* * *
Polk County has a biker bar, the pretty bartender one of Daniel’s former students, the TV above the bar playing subtitled CNN, and a guy with a guitar wailing Stairway to Heaven into a single microphone. We sit down to another water and another glass of red.
Daniel asks, “You really never want children?”
No, I don’t. “Do you?”
“I want to have children with you.”
I think it’s probably the wine.
He says, “Don’t ever get to be sixty and lonely.”
I say, “Sometimes I’m so lonely I want to die, but sometimes I almost cry with joy because I am so lucky to have the life I do. I’d rather have those two extremes than the safe middle.”
He says, “Don’t sleep in the spare room tonight.”
He says, “Please.”
I am definitely the only one of us fit to drive, and I drive us home along US 17/92, turning up the radio when it plays the music of my friend who should be divorced while Daniel eats the almonds out of the mixed nuts I keep in the car. They are my least favorite, so it’s a favor.
He’s sweating, so I wrap my scarf one more time and slide the sun roof open, the air cleaning some of the cigarette smoke and fake fog out of my hair, the citrus groves and lakes whipping past the windows, the burning euphoria of being smart, artistic people with the power to live somewhere else fading into hunger.
Daniel says he’ll cook something, but I eat egg salad and crackers, give half to him.
I brush my teeth, I take my contacts out, I take out the crumpled paper and send an email to the fishing group leader I know, “This is John who is new in town and could use some people to hang out with, will you send him an invite to your next public event?” I put on pajamas and socks and pad into Daniel’s room and curl up beside him, the blankets mostly on me, half his body hanging out. I breathe evenly with my eyes closed while hearing his heart thump, and when I finally sleep for real, I count four separate and distinct nightmares, fire, water, earth and air.