Strange Places and Familiar Ones

 

In San Antonio, my partner and I live a few blocks from a strip of gay bars. Aptly named The Strip. My favorite place is called Knockouts. It’s a sports bar. Open-air. Pool tables, godzilla tvs. A pizzeria next door. One Saturday a month, there is a “Gear Night,” which is frequented by men in uniforms and leather and strippers with penchants for harnesses.

I think my first lover would have loved this bar. Sports. Desire. He liked the Dodgers and the Raiders, and he liked a good breeze and cold Mexican beer. I think he would have loved San Antonio, and I know he would have loved Los Spurs. But he died, like so many of our men have died. So he never got to see this bar or 2016 or Selena Gomez or #BlackLivesMatter.

I think my first lover would have loved a great many things we have now.

I think my first lover must have held things in common with some of your lovers.

I wonder sometimes what a gay bar was like in 1985. Nine—that’s how old I would have been. I can imagine the music, of course. iTunes helps with that. I’ve seen photographs, and so, I can imagine the clothes. I’d say I’ve seen movies, but most 80s movies don’t include people like him, like us. I could ask someone, I suppose. Someone who lived through it. Someone who was there.

Someone once told me Grindr and Scruff and the other hook-up apps are killing queer bars.

Somebody told me homophobia makes queer bars, keeps them necessary and fueled. If you’ve never been to a small-town gay bar, I’d say go, but that sounds too much like tourism or a fucked-up voyeurism.

Cellphones make it easier for us to make eye-contact, a guy once told me. Because they take away the awkwardness of strangers meeting in dark rooms, because once you’ve exchanged dick pics or faceless torso shots, looking for another man’s soul when you meet him is naturally the next step.

You only fall in love once. Someone told me that once, too. You only get one true love.   If it’s true, what if we’ve already felt ours?

Because I asked, my first lover told me I wasn’t his first love. Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked. Perhaps I should walk the world, asking to hear about people’s first loves—could my heart suffer so much joy? Would it erupt into a thousand mockingbirds, singing and whispering and echoing love, the loss that attends the fact that you had a first love and for whatever reason have moved on?

Crushed is a word to articulate what I felt, being 19 and learning I wasn’t a man’s first love even if he was mine. But he loved me, a good, solid love, perhaps as much as anyone can love the man who’s not his first, and a good love is the closest thing to God.

At Knockouts, my lover and I hold hands, because, well, this is Texas and this is the America and I am a brown queer man in 2016 and I want to keep myself alive, which means a part of me still has to be subdued and hidden and with both my hands on the dashboard.

In fifty years, someone will wonder what a gay bar was like in 2016.

Right now, someone in the world is wondering what a gay bar is like. Wishing for its strobe lights, its music, its touch. Craving how one might belong. Vodka tonics and Fireballs. Beyonce and cumbias, a little country, magic.

In 1985, my first lover fell in love with a man named Patricio. They met at a gay bar near downtown Los Angeles. The name of the bar flees me. But I gathered that he’d seen Patricio before at one of the parks, from a story he told me, from a few little strings of stories he gave me as we lay in his bed or on the sofa, maybe, and he let himself go. I think we can teach people entire worlds when we lay beside them, hold hands, whisper and laugh and take them back to where we have been, to where we are from.

The parks, he told me, that was just how people back then met.

There are times I will picture my first lover standing by a tree. He’s wearing a creased pair of khakis, a white tee. I believe Dino Dinco’s photographic series entitled “Elysian Park” makes a good scene. I imagine my body, like his, immersed in foliage, making itself browner against sky, so much green. I think my first lover’s shoes would have been blue. Chucks, likely. He was straight-up from LA. A gold chain or an escapulario, his hair black and slicked back with Three Flowers. Dark lentes, or Locs, over his eyes, his knuckles bare, carrying a heat that emanated from deep behind his eyes.

Wanting a man today is different, I suspect, from wanting a man back then.

Whole parts of us are visible now when they weren’t back then.

If I was a painter, I’d sketch him like this. In the Elysian Park trees. Among old rubbers and footprints, leaves. But I don’t know if I could commit to dipping the brush in paint, to making him and unmaking him with each stroke. All his life, he’d be penciled, grey and incomplete. I am not a painter.

A long time ago, I used to put my hands on myself imagining myself walking by his tree. There’s a language in Mexico where people articulate themselves using only whistles. I imagine he speaks this language of whistles. His tongue loose with air, smooth and agile and not adrift. Sounds have purposes, but most days, I struggle to remember the purpose of remembering a first love.

“Te voy a chiflar.” I remember him telling me this when we met. I am going to spoil you. That’s what I believed he meant, but what if I was wrong? What if he only meant he was going to whistle to me? Some men speak to us more when they’re dead.

My first lover loved his first lover for many years.

He loved his first love more than he loved me. We belonged, he told me one night atop his roof, the whole city of LA and its glimmering lights, its traffic and skyscrapers at our feet. We belonged, I repeated under the folds of my voice, and I understood because I knew what it was not to belong and then, finally, for the first time, to feel a part of something, of some place, of someone—never wanting it to end.

Everyone has a first lover, I guess. If we are lucky. If.

Everyone has a first time at a gay bar.

The man I love now had a first lover, too. It wasn’t me. Isn’t. Months ago, when Adele’s new album came out, he laid in bed one afternoon and listened to “Hello” for so long that I began to memorize the words. From the kitchen, I could hear him remembering a man who wasn’t me. The fear that he wasn’t thinking of me stung. But that day I didn’t yet know how to be fine with it, to feel happiness that I am in love with another human who has felt something so profound that he can remember it all these years after the fact, spurred on by a woman with a voice from across the ocean.

I grew up near a body I thought was an ocean. It was the Gulf. I grew up running in the sand in the sun, and there were birds hiding in the sedge which I could only see when I stopped running, when I sat very still and listened to the shore as I caught my breath. The birds were there all along. In the silence and the salt, I felt I belonged. Among pelicans and beach primrose and fish. This mattered because I was sixteen and poor and queer and very brown in my heart, and in my small South Texas town, in 1993, these things, together, connected, didn’t belong.

A space works because it offers us placement.

A space doesn’t work when it kills us, cuts off our face.

Spaces I inhabit most: the gym, barbershop, grocery store, bedroom, patio, RV, classroom, shower. I can’t imagine that my head isn’t a place, also. My heart.

A place works because it helps us feel we belong.

I wonder what my first lover would have to say about Orlando and the deaths of those 49 brothers and sisters. I wonder what he would have to say about President Obama and the SCOTUS decision to legalize same-sex marriage. I don’t think he ever thought he’d see the day. He didn’t. But I don’t wonder what he would believe about Trump. And I don’t wonder what he would say about crooked white cops killing black and brown people. He was a poor Chicano with a record from LA.

When I first came out, in Los Angeles, in college, Escandalo was the place I loved most. Do you remember walking into a gay bar that flew your flag? Don’t you know that kindling that occurs inside each of your calluses when you look around and everyone else wears his skin like you?

There is magic in the world, I’d like to think.

On the walls, the promoter projected a slideshow of lowrider car shows, candy-green metal flake hardtop Impalas, blue diamond Cuttys, brown men with eyebrows and hard-creased Ben Davis wearing pristine Nike Cortez. Shirts so impeccably white they glowed. Near the dance floor, huge Mexican flags hung, and in front of them, la Virgen de Guadalupe and dancers in boxers and tallboy socks and Papi caps moved themselves to house. From the rafters all the flags of South and Central America and the US. People said, Que onda? What’s up? They asked us our names. Yes, they asked us, Where you from?

But I have also walked into a gay bar where no one saw me. Where people told me to move. Where a man told me I was in the wrong bar and asked me if I even had enough money to buy a drink. Where taco jokes were told to my face and jokes about wetbacks fell within earshot, where a security guard escorted me out. Yes, there are gay bars where I don’t belong.

I can think today of many places where I do belong.

I have grown. I am older. My arms are bigger, my tattoos darker, my beard thicker. I am still brown. I don’t talk much. I don’t. There are places that ignored me ten years ago but now invite me in. Just because I am invited someplace doesn’t mean I belong. But just because it isn’t the place I feel most at home doesn’t mean I invalidate it, negate its power, dull its beauty. And this is queerness. And this is my bowl of howls and good will and the understanding that I am not the center of the world even though I hold a small fragment of the universe inside me. Can I complicate this not belonging? Of course. My not belonging means someone else belongs. So we all hold this small infinitesimal box, which isn’t a box at all, because I can’t think of another metaphor, one more fitting than Keats’s old box and its thirsty-ass click.

The ideas that we all belong somewhere, that no one has to go hungry, that there are water jugs waiting in the deserts. I don’t know how else to say it: my life is better because there are queer bars, leathery and dank, full of darkness and drag queens and hard desire and Britney Spears, as much as it is better because there’s a gay sports bar where I can cheer on the Spurs, even as they exit early from the playoffs, or watch Serena Williams be history.

For a long time, I imagined that I would not live passed 30.

When I was 26, I met a man who worked for the United States Border Patrol. He had a wife and some kids and he drove a truck and he showed me his guns. We met in South Texas, in the small towns from where I come. Once, he asked me to take him to LA so he could go to a gay bar, a place where no one would recognize him. When I decided to move to San Antonio, he pleaded with me to stay with him, to live in the same town. He told me he felt alone. Unimaginably alone.

I asked him how he did it.

He said: It’s just a job.

Cheat on your wife with guys, I replied. Why don’t you leave?

For that, he had no response.

No matter our place in life we all want to belong.

Children and babies, siblings, fathers, mothers, lonely boys, homeboys with shitloads of friends, women with parejas and badass lives, girls who listen to Lana del Rey and fade their heads with subzeros and twos.

The first fight I ever had with my partner was over #BlackLivesMatters and the Arizona SB 1070 law. It’s hard loving white people some days—on the days they declare shit we know will get us killed, on days they erase what we know in the hearts of our bones to be real, like it was real for our uncles like it was real for our moms like it is real for our nephews and ex-lovers and friends and you. Back then I didn’t know how to make him hear my fear. I didn’t have a metaphor for saying, As a white man, you get to do things that I don’t and that’s unfair as fuck and that shit is unAmerican, and I can die for this shit. This is my rage.

I can’t imagine a world without white people, but I fear sometimes, some of them dream of a world without us.

Tonight, over dinner, I listened to my partner explain white privilege to his sons. I have loved this man for three years. For each of these years he has loved me. Tonight, he sat beside me at the table and explained why anger about police murdering black men is real and rooted in experience, in history. His sons sat at their plates, their eyes full of listening. When he was done, they cleared the table, and I went to our room and I bathed my little dog in the shower and I felt myself sigh, Yes. Yes. Fuck yes.

There is magic in the world.

Listen to stories of our ancestors, and you can tell someone that magic.

Years ago, I must have been in my late teens, I watched a documentary called ¡Viva 16!, directed by Augie Robles and Valentin Aguirre, about the impact of AIDS on Latinas/os’ need for community in San Francisco’s Mission District. I believe, now, it was really a film about the importance of Latina/o nightclubs in the Mission, but mostly one club, Esta Noche. One person Robles and Aguirre interview says of her lost friend, I told her Rocio Durcal has a new album. When you get better, you can perform her songs, the new songs. I am paraphrasing. I cannot remember the exact words but it’s the sentimiento that clings to the scaffold of my heart.

Yes, the things that stick with us are potent.

And it is hard to imagine the world without those we love, but like other trials, other tribulations, I remind myself, as a woman who helped me save myself reminded me years back, People before us did this, survived this, and so we can, too. Of course, our struggles do not rival those of our ancestors—that’s what I want to say, what I feel is the right thing to say. But perhaps I need not say anything like this at all. Perhaps I only need to know from where we came and let my body fill itself with hopes.

No matter who we are or where we are from, we want to belong.

My heart still holds its old heat for a boy in ¡Viva 16! who wanted one thing in his short, small life—he wanted to turn 18, which meant he’d gain entrance to the bar. Yes, belonging is a motherfucker. Yes, belonging nos vale. It matters to us like air and food and shelter, and yes, Love.

In this very tough summer, I am realizing our whole lives are about belonging and unbelonging. Any teenager might tell you this. We get older, we get fatter, less muscular, we are darker, we flame, we become less to the cults of belonging, and thus, we belong differently. And I am wrong about this, because for every place that does not embrace us, we make, if we are lucky, that belonging, or we find it, because it has already been made for us. Escandalo. Knockouts. Esta Noche. OutSports San Antonio. DragCon. Dignity. Pulse. The queer bars and associations whose names and faces and sentimientos you may be thinking of now. Those. Esos. These places.

Yes, belonging is political. Like wanting to survive is political. Like being a man loving another man is political. Like the Orlando massacre and unjust cops shooting black people is political. Like Trump wanting to build his wall and millions of Americans agreeing with him is political. The desire to belong is wanting to be safe, and that is political. Wanting our brownness and queerness and cariño so intact that we love ourselves solidly—yes, that is political. Perhaps in all of our years we might not have yet been blessed to read Lorde or Anzaldúa or Moraga or to be in a room or at a table where people loved us enough to tell us about them, but the personal is political, and for this reason people like us, people like you and like me, will survive.

By Joe Jimenez

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