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Pretend it’s late in March, 2002. And you’re gay.

André calls up and says, “The Back Room opens tonight. I’ll pick you up at ten.” Nine-thirty finds you still in your bedroom trying on tee-shirts to see which one best showcases the pecs you’ve been working on all winter. The buzzer sounds at eleven and you leave wet footprints on the hardwoods on your way from the shower to the intercom. André climbs up to the sixth floor, lets himself in and yells into the bathroom without looking, “Why can’t you be on time, just this once?” Make your bed while he whines and pouts about the late hour, but you need your room to look decent. If you make it home at all tonight, you don’t plan on coming back alone.

Outside, walk up St. Mark’s Place to the N and the R against a flood of drunk teenagers headed eastward to Avenue A. Or maybe they’re not really so young and it is you who is growing old: you’ll be thirty this year. A warm front, the first one in some months, settled over the city yesterday, but the weather man on New York One promises it won’t last through the night. His Accu-Track forecast calls for a seventy percent chance of more snow. In weather like this, a pretty girl leaves home early in a short skirt and a skimpy top, then returns late wrapped in her boyfriend’s jacket. But now, prime time for the bars and pubs, there’s plenty of skin showing. The café right at the corner of Second Avenue has opened its patio. Fashionable couples sip wine there and present themselves to be admired. Some of the trees along the street have even started to sprout little shoots that will certainly die in the coming chill. 

When at last you wade through the crowd and swipe your MetroCard at the turnstile, head to the end of the platform. You wait here at the end, far outside the posted “Off Hours Waiting Area,” so you can smoke. When the train pulls in, flick your cigarette toward the third rail and follow André through the doors. Sit opposite him and avoid making eye contact. Wonder if you’re doing it on purpose– ignoring him– to keep from looking too gay. In your neighborhood everyone is some kind of queer, but you never know who’s going to come through those doors and into this train car. It won’t likely happen tonight, but boys like you are beaten or killed or worse for swishing in the wrong place.

After Canal Street, only you, André, and a half dozen people bound for the tunnel under the East River remain on the train. Everyone in the car is either black, brown, or some kind of beige, like you. You feel a little silly sitting there in that wife-beater and artificially faded jean jacket while everyone else wears work clothes. You don’t even have a job anymore: you tell people at parties that you’re freelancing, but mostly you’re just catering when you can get work and ducking the super. He was understanding when you got two months behind, but three is pushing it.

André gets out of his seat before Whitehall, the last stop in Manhattan. As he steps off the train, he reaches back and takes a hold of your hand. You don’t see the reaction of the other passengers. They’re probably not too scandalized, but you feel giddy walking the platform holding hands with another man, like you have gotten away with something. André lets go before you get up onto the street. He knows the rules as well as you do.

You went on two dates with André and slept with him three times. You both lost interest quickly, but as he lives a block away, you remained friends. André has a job working here in the financial district somewhere, in a gigantic building with a newly panoramic view of the city. He sits next to a multi-line phone behind carpeted, moveable walls, but as soon as the company solves its current space shortage, he has been promised his very own office. You sometimes think André likes to go out with you for the superficial reason that you are good-looking and that makes him good-looking by association. Or at least you suspect it, because you yourself have admired the image of the two of you together, spied in the reflections of the shops on Lower Broadway or the lounges of Chelsea. André, jet black and muscular in sneakers kept homeboy pristine, a perfect complement for you, taller and lean, light-skinned and tatty.

Follow André through the crooked, unnumbered streets behind the South Street Sea Port. Turn down some narrow streets you’ve never been on before. All the businesses are closed by now. Metal gates cover all the store fronts and provide only glimpses of the goods for sale. Discount stores and pharmacies, mostly, the kinds of places professionals visit on their lunch breaks. Note the frequent “Going Out of Business” sales. You traverse a pedestrian walkway through a strip of stores you recognize, the same ones they have in the mall in the little town where you grew up. The lights are brighter here, the streetlamps set-dressed to look like gas lights. Homeless people stretch out on brass and wood benches, enjoying the unexpected warm spell after a winter spent God-Knows-Where.

He points to a bar with a generic Irish name and a dimmed electric sign and says, “There it is.”

“This shit hole?” You search for the familiar tip-offs as you approach, the rainbow-colored beer signs, the tacky neon signs, a pink triangle. You see only a large window covered in newspaper. White shoe polish on the front spells out “Grand Opening- Under New Management” in crooked six-inch tall letters. Eight or nine guys in dark coats and hats pulled over their eyes wait in line. 

He says, “Trust me. Stop being so jumpy all the time.” He jogs across the street and gets in line. Slink to your place behind him, trying not to look too eager. Desperation is a turn-off.

Staring at the pavement and waiting for the line to move, you pretend not to notice a guy you’ve seen around the neighborhood, a pretty-faced Puerto-Rican with long eyelashes. He glances at you from the head of the line, looks away, and returns to a conversation with his friend. You’ve seen this guy at the deli buying coffee in the morning, alone at the movie theater on a dead weeknight, tanning at the park on a patterned bed sheet in summer. But instead of waving or saying hello, look back to the pavement and wonder if he thinks you’re handsome.

When you get to the front, the bouncer, a beefy Guido in a trench coat, says, “I.D.” You and André both hold out your driver’s licenses at the same time. He shines a flashlight onto first André’s, then yours, scrutinizing the dates of birth and checking to make sure the pictures match the faces. He passes the cards back, but before he moves out of the way, he says, “You guys know this is a gay party, right?”

André says, “Please, girl,” and pays the cover for both of you. The bouncer steps aside and lets the two of you pass. You feel somehow complimented that he had to check to make sure you’re fags, but then you wonder why that should be a compliment. There’s a moment of darkness as you fumble through the first set of doors. You feel the bass from the music before you’ve made it all the way in, the pulsing of a monstrous heart. André takes your hand again and pulls you. The shape of his body dissolves in a flash of disco light. The smell of old beer, sweat, and cologne wafts over you.

A bar takes up most of the first room, an immense mahogany piece set into the wall with a ceiling-high, gold-veined mirror. There are so many men crushed into this room together that the ones closest to the bar have to press on the high brass rail with both arms to keep from being crushed. A hasty DJ booth takes up the end closest to the door in what must have been the service bar. Two bartenders shuttle back and forth and splash cocktails into plastic cups. The closer of the two wears a pair of cheetah-spotted panties and nothing else. The other one reaches over the bar and kisses a man on the other side full on the mouth. A lanky boy with a Mohawk and a tattoo of a dragon all over his back perches on the far end of the bar in a jock strap and black All Stars, swaying side to side and sipping a drink out of a red tumbler. André drags you through the throng there all along the bar, the dozens of men jammed into the narrow space. After ten minutes of knocking into half-drunk queens and getting your shoes stepped on, you make it through. In the stairwell there, catch your breath and take off your jacket.

Under the gleam of an illuminated emergency exit, the whites of Andre’s eyes are pink. He leans in and yells in your ear, but you can’t hear what he’s said. Smile and nod anyway. He waits for you to say something, then holds out both his hands and shrugs. He waits another minute, until you hold out your hands and shrug also. You can feel the vibration from the music in your gut. André draws his hand up to his face. He points his thumb toward his lips and sticks out his pinky toward you, then tilts his hand at the wrist. This you understand. You yell, more loudly than you meant to, “Jack and Coke.” He heads back toward the bar and you wait in this corridor (with your broke ass).

A trio of guys walks past, each looking you up and down as he makes his way out of the front bar. Pretend not to notice. From the look in their eyes, it could be they want to cut you open and see what’s inside. You feel silly lingering in such a high traffic corner, in between a staircase and a floor-length velvet curtain. It looks like you’re waiting for someone to hit on you and even though you are, in fact, waiting for someone to hit on you, you’d like to be more subtle. Walk up the stairs a few steps to see what’s on the second floor. You hear another bass line, distinct from the original, but decide to wait for André before you go explore it. Back down in the stairwell, a man in camouflage pants and a baseball cap comes out through the doorway concealed by the heavy black drape.

In the room behind the curtain, heavy duty tarps cover every surface, including two pool tables. Dim lights, pointed toward the walls, shine into the corners, but the interior stays dark. More tarps, hung on fishing lines, rope off small, semi-private sections in middle. Conversations held in low voices drift over the muted thudding of the music from upfront. This is it: the eponymous back room, the kind that was shuttered by AIDS and law enforcement while you were in grammar school. There’s nothing particularly sexy about it. Only a few men in silly outfits working out the details of a hand job or a quick feel.

A hand cups the bottom of your ass. You look over your shoulder and find André there. He doesn’t have any drinks. He says, “Find anything you like yet?”

“I think I slept with all these guys already.” Or guys exactly like them. In the dark, it’s hard to tell.

“You’re bitter,” he says. “The front is too crowded. Let’s try upstairs. Everyone will look a lot prettier when we’re drunk.”

He leads back through the curtain, into the stairwell, and up the stairs. A bare-chested redhead near the top leans against the wall. He locks his eyes on André as the two of you approach. André turns his head so he can keep staring, grinning a little bit. He can talk to anyone, just walk up and introduce himself. His facility with the rituals, the cutting glances and intrigue, puts you to shame. All this pageantry makes you uncomfortable. When you ask him if he’s going to go talk to the redhead, he sticks his tongue out and says, “Too tall.” Give him twenty minutes; the next prospect will be too short. And he calls you jaded.

At the landing, the upstairs opens out into another long, narrow room, with a bar on the side and an impromptu dance floor and stage against the far wall. A six-foot tall drag queen in a blonde afro wig, a dress made out of shopping bags, and platform shoes lip synchs into an ornamental microphone with feral intensity. She’s the only other black person here. Go-go boys preen on top of speaker boxes along the sides of the crowded floor, bumping and grinding for loose singles. The most popular dancer, judging by the number of men gathered around him with outstretched dollar bills, wears a blue mechanic’s uniform opened to the waist. He unzips the rest of the way and takes out his outsized penis. The men gathered around his pedestal pack themselves in tighter. The dancer holds his hand up in front of his face and rubs his index and middle fingers against his thumb to show he needs inspiration. A man in the crowd holds out a bill and the dancer looks to see which president is printed on the money. Satisfied, he sticks the bill in his back pocket, spreads his legs slightly, then folds over at the waist and takes the end of his penis in his own mouth. When he straightens up, he can’t snatch all the money offered to him quickly enough.

André looks over at you and says, “Girl. That has to be against the law.”

“The cops have better things to do than bust gay bars,” you say. You smell a joint burning in the air.

This time, André gives you the money to get the drinks. Elbow your way up to the bar, mumbling “Excuse me. Sorry. Excuse me” to everyone blocking your path. A skinny bleached blonde with eyebrows waxed pencil-thin sneers when you jostle him and while you wait for the bartender’s attention, you wish that all these people would behave more civilly to one another. These boys are only nice to each other when they want to fuck, and sometimes not even then. A little decorum would be nice. Some etiquette.

André buys a few more rounds and the two of you dance unenthusiastically to worn out house music, keeping a space between you big enough to let observers know you’re not a couple. The two or three watered-down drinks seem to have no effect. André starts to slur his words a little bit, the lightweight. He suggests a run downstairs to get to work on the brass tacks of finding someone to sleep with. Nod and go with him, but think it might take a couple shots to get you in the mood.

In the back room, a dozen more men have filed in. The faint shapes of bodies in motion can be seen in the darkened interior. André points out a high bar table at the far corner , under a lamp and says, “Isn’t that your Tuesday-Thursday guy?”

Dominick stares in toward the center of the room and slugs on a bottle of beer. Lit from above, his features are washed out and you have to stare for a second to make sure it really is him. Since you last saw him, he’s let his hair grow out. He’s wearing a black tank top and a silver cross on a chain. His skin looks paler than you remember, the muscle between his neck and shoulder rounder and more full. You’ve always liked Dominick’s body. Remember the feel of his skin, the taste of it.

André pats you on the back and says, “Get it, girl.” He heads to the stairs to go find his redhead or something better. He says, “Call me on my phone when you get home,” and waves over his shoulder.

Dominick doesn’t notice you until you’re face to face. He’s not wearing his glasses. He smiles and you don’t recall him being so handsome before. You say, “Hey.” and he says “Hey” back. Then he recognizes you and he smiles more broadly and laughs a little bit.

You met Dominick at the restaurant, back when you worked full-time. He came in with an older guy and you flirted with them both, mostly for the tip. After his friend left, an apparently unsuccessful first-date, he sat at the bar for over two hours and went on and on about his recent move to the city from Bethel, Washington. You stopped charging him for his beers. He waited there when you counted out the till and wrapped all the leftover bar fruit in plastic. After you restocked the cooler and dropped your apron in the laundry bag, he stood on the street with you while you hailed a taxi. When one pulled over, you opened up the door and, emboldened by what was basically a done deal, asked, “Are you coming?”

At your place, after you fucked him, Dominick fell asleep on his side with his back curled up against you. You woke up a few times during the night and noticed that he hadn’t moved at all and when you rolled over on to your back, he scooted over toward your side without opening his eyes and put his head on your chest. You liked how soundly he slept, how untroubled his face looked, but the next morning, you let him leave without giving him your phone number or even your last name. He showed up at the bar again right before closing two days later, and then almost every Tuesday and Thursday after that for the next few months. It turned out he didn’t have classes on Wednesday or Friday mornings.

When he finally worked up the nerve to ask if he was your boyfriend or not, you had already prepared a little speech. You told him you weren’t ready and that it was you, your problem, but you didn’t mean it. Really, after you tallied up his pros and cons, you just figured you could do better. It thrilled you to see the disappointment on his face, the recognition that he had been nothing but a form of entertainment, a hobby you took up and were ready to put down. You don’t even remember when he stopped coming around.

But that was ages ago. Here, at the Back Room, things can be different. Dominick pulls another stool away from his table and pats his hand on it. He says, “It’s really good to see you. How are you?”

Sit down next to him and say, “All right, I guess. Hanging out. What have you been up to?” Pull out your smokes and set them next to him.

He points to the pack, and you nod, open up the box, take out two cigarettes and light his first. He inhales, coughs, then blows a plume of smoke out of the side of his mouth. He says, “I moved out to Park Slope. I was answering phones at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis for about a year, but I got laid off. Everybody’s doing breast cancer now.” He rolls his eyes. He leans in toward you and says, “Working at that same place?”

You say, “Freelancing.” Before he can press for details, ask, “Are you seeing anyone?” Move your bar stool closer to his.

He says, “Well, I guess. I mean, I’m seeing a couple people, but I think they all kind of cancel each other out.” The skin next to the edges of his eyes wrinkles up when he laughs. It’s hard to keep in mind the reasons you spurned him.

The glass in your hand is empty. You crunch the last of the ice at the bottom in your teeth. Another whiteboy in a pink tee shirt with reflective Old English lettering that says “Cunty” walks over, and you think at first he is coming to talk to you, but he slides into the space between Dominick and the wall. He puts his hand on Dominick’s shoulder and bends to kiss him on the neck. He says something in Dominick’s ear. Dominick laughs and the boy drags his long fingers over Dominick’s stomach.

Dominick says, “Have you met Johnny Z?” You hold out your hand to shake, and Johnny looks at it for a second like he’s not sure what to do, then extends a hand to take yours in a weak grip.

Dominick explains that Johnny is the promoter of the party and while he talks, Johnny Z looks over your shoulder at the crowd of guys filing into and out of the back room, counting heads. He waves to someone behind you while Dominick highlights Johnny’s major accomplishments, the string of underground events for gay men culminating in tonight’s take-over of a bankrupt pub. Dominick concludes by saying, “It was in the paper,” and you don’t ask which paper. Everyone in New York thinks he’s famous anyway. It strikes you that Dominick, who once seemed so small town, so green, probably knows more people here tonight than you do.

Johnny Z takes out a brown vial and unscrews the lid. He holds his left fist out like he’s playing Scissors-Paper-Stone, then taps some white powder out onto it with his right. He holds it under his nose and inhales sharply. He blinks a few times, then shakes out a bigger pile and snorts that up too. He replaces the lid and puts the vial back in his pocket, then pinches his nostrils together with his finger tips and tilts his head back. He looks up and sees you and Dominick staring at him and he says, “Oh, sorry. Did you want some?”

Dominick looks to you first. He raises his eyebrows up and tilts his chin toward you. Before you decide, Dominick says, “O.K.” You’ve never even seen him smoke a cigarette before tonight, and while you yourself are not above the occasional bump of coke or hit of ecstasy, you mostly stick to a weekly allowance of an eighth of weed delivered by bicycle messenger.

Dominick holds out his fist and Johnny Z shakes out a pile of powder on his hand. The first time Dominick snorts, he forgets to pinch his other nostril closed and so he doesn’t take in very much. He looks up at you with a little bit of white dust on the end of his nose and you and Johnny Z laugh at the same time. Johnny Z shows him how to do it right and Dominick takes the rest of the pile, a mound about the size of a grape, in four or five snorts.

Johnny holds the vial out to you and you ask, “Is this coke?” When he says it’s K, shake your head. No thanks.

Dominick says, “What’s K?” He doesn’t look worried.

You look at him and say, “Special K. Ketamine. It’s animal tranquilizer. Vets use that shit to knock out horses so they can cut off their balls.”

He says, “I thought it was coke.” His pupils look bigger already.

Johnny Z says, “Have you ever done K before?” Dominick shakes his head no and Johnny says, “I thought you were doing a lot. You’re going to be really fucked up.” He smiles at the end, turning on a quick and professional grin. He pushes himself up off the wall, kisses Dominick on the cheek, then walks back toward the entrance.

Dominick says, “I thought it was coke.” He continues to smile and he leans in as if he’s going to say something, but instead rolls forward and falls off his bar stool. He lands on the side of his ass then sprawls out. He catches his weight on his hands and sits on the ground. Help him to his feet. His body feels heavy. He can’t get his legs to walk and before he can get back in his seat, he says, “I think I’m going to puke.”

You say, “Come on.” Put one of his arms around your neck and grab him around the ribcage. Drag his dead weight through an unlit hallway toward what you hope is the bathroom. Ignore the startled shouts and vulgar complaints of the guys you shove aside. It looks like a scene from a war movie, the way he leans on you and lurches forward.

A quarter-inch of water pools on the floor on the bathroom, splashing under your footfalls. Cut the line and bang on the locked door of the stall closest to the sink. Two guys come out with guilty looks on their faces. Dominick falls forward onto his hands and knees, almost putting his face in the bowl. Help him onto the seat of the stopped up toilet. He rolls his head forward over his lap, groans, then vomits, his hands grasping the empty toilet paper dispenser to steady himself. He sits there, dazed and unseeing, covered in dirty water and the former contents of his stomach. Every few minutes, he groans, “Oh, my God.” You stand in front of him and even though you try not to, you catch your face in the mirror. You look tired.

After what seems like ten or twenty minutes, Johnny Z prances in. He says, “Poor baby,” to Dominick while he checks his hair and fixes his tee shirt. He shakes out another bump for himself and says, “I think he’s in a K-Hole. Some sugar would help.”

When you ask Johnny if he’ll go get it, he sighs melodramatically and huffs off toward the bar. He takes his time going to get some cranberry juice. He gives you the cup, and you in turn hold it up to Dominick’s lips. He sips a little, holds it for less than thirty seconds, then forcefully expels the liquid in a shower of pink. Some splashes on your jeans.

Johnny Z says, “Definitely a K-Hole.” He pats the top of Dominick’s head on his way out.

Dominick puts his head against the wall and says, “What happened?” He grips the edges of the stall where the door would be with his fingertips. His feet drag across the water on the floor, the splashing sounds punctuated by the steady drone of far-off music. Guys come in, see him there, and tut-tut over his bad form. You try not to look at anyone while you babysit Dominick. He probably didn’t take enough to overdose, only enough to make him sick and kill your buzz. Lean back on the sink and take stock of the situation: There’s nothing keeping you there. You could walk right out and find some company in minutes. No strings attached. Dominick found his way into the club; he can surely find his way back home. What do you owe him? He’s not even your boyfriend.

Johnny Z comes back in, arm in arm with an Asian guy with blue hair. He points to Dominick and says, “He thought it was coke, Brian.” Brain guy nods like a bored psychiatrist. He faces you and says, “We should give him some coke. That’ll wake him up.” Then he trains his eyes on your face and says, “Just a little bump, is all.”

You say, “No more drugs, Brian,” suddenly possessive and protecting. But looking around the room, especially at Dominick, Johnny Z and the blue-haired kid in that dingy light, you could definitely use a drink or a line or something. You have never felt so sober in your life.

You know what your problem is? You think too much. What a relief a few hours free of consciousness would be. Imagine what Dominick sees, holding his head on the toilet seat: the field of vision that fractures into moving planes like the icons on a slot machine. Faces warp and distort, familiar features blurring into an unrecognizable pulp of flesh and shadow. Time stops and a second can last all night. You’ve been there before. Still, to the inexperienced, to Dominick, the whole thing must be terrifying. Look at the poor guy there, with his hands clamped over his eyes to try to stop the hallucinations.

Dominick says, “Don’t leave me.”

Stay close to him, the water on the floor seeping in through your shoes to wet your socks. Say to him again and again, “I’m here. It’ll be all right.” Put your hand on his shoulder. He rubs his palm over your knuckles.

After another thirty-five, forty minutes, you figure he must be coming down. You ask him if he can walk and he says yes, but you have to get his arm around your neck again to lift him up. Steer him forward with your hand on the small of his back, out to the exit. The crowd in the front bar parts ahead of you and reforms behind.

Outside, the snow has just started to come down. You have always liked the way the sky looks when it snows at night, the lavender color overhead when light reflects back up from the street. The first flakes are not exactly falling, more like hovering in front of your face, too weightless to make it all the way to earth. There isn’t a cab out front, and you don’t remember the way to the subway. You head out toward the end of the block, toward the avenue and figure you’ll have more luck finding a taxi there. You could be headed east or west at this point. The island is so narrow down here and you can’t see either river through the flurry.

The little lane rises toward the corner, so that you are trudging uphill. The snow in your face obscures the street signs. You can’t make out the name of the avenue, but before you make the corner you see a few cabs streaking by with their signs lit. The street evens out under you and you step out from the maze of buildings onto Church Street in front of the empty lot that used to be the World Trade Center: Ground Zero.

Wood construction barricades encircle the site, a block long on each side. Hundred-foot-tall cranes, still moving even at this hour, twist gracefully at the bottom of the far side of the crater, several stories below street level. Powerful beams mounted on white trucks shine up from the pit like the lights in a swimming pool at night. You can hear the hum of the electricity that powers the banks of spotlights.

Even Dominick is struck by the immensity of the emptiness there, the startling lack of architecture. He says, “Jesus Christ.” You both stand there a minute, watching, the currents of the wind visible as stippled lines of snowflakes eddying in midair .

A taxi zooms by and you flag it with your free hand. The cabbie pulls over and you help Dominick into the backseat. The driver sinks down in his seat and bends his neck so he can look up through the windshield and see the motes of snow rising and twisting on the wind. You watch as long as you can, the car inching forward so the driver can take in the sight. When he can’t see anymore because the angle is wrong, he hits the accelerator and you lurch forward in your seat.

After you tell the driver the address, no one speaks. You think you can still see the light shining in the snow all the way uptown, a faint halo on the horizon out the back window. When the cab pulls up in front of your building, you take out Dominick’s wallet and pay the fare.

In the hall outside your front door, you strip off all of Dominick’s clothes. Naked, he rests his forehead on the wall and says, “I wish it would stop spinning.” Put him in the shower and help him wash. He climbs into the bed wet and passes out.

After you’ve had your cigarette and called André’s voicemail to tell him you made it home, clean up and slip in to the bed next to Dominick. Wait for the low murmur of his breath to emerge from the silence in you room, steady and slow, each inhale and exhale a unit of a perfect stillness. When you are sure he won’t wake up, tell him what you should have told him all those months ago. In a whisper, tell him how sorry you are for what you did, for the way you treated him. In the morning, when the snow has been marked with the dirty boot marks of the morning commute, you will have to negotiate with him, rehash the story, maybe give a lecture. But for now, just look at how peacefully he sleeps there – entirely defenseless, his head rested on your chest, the fingers of his hand delicately curled against his lip – as he dreams his way through the grief, the snow, and everything else.

[Forever after at]


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