Content Warning: The following piece contains references to drug use and gun violence.
I wrote this several days after the slaughter at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla. June 12, 2016, where a gunman killed 49 people before killing himself, on June 12, 2016.
I got all my sisters with me (Sister Sledge)
I don’t think that poppers are probably very good for you. They’re probably bad for your heart. Also, they may not be as much fun as they used to be. My best friend tells me that the formula for them has changed, and that what’s available now is a pale substitute for what we used back in the day. I don’t get out much anymore, so for all I know, the same may be true about the place where I was introduced to them: my local gay bar. For all I know, the formula for that bar has been so diluted and displaced by all the apps, that the local gay bar I knew doesn’t even exist anymore.
In my youth, your local gay bar was a place you could go if you were gay or lesbian of any size or shape and wanted to feel safe from the various kinds of sticks and stones that came for you then. (The shapes and size of those sticks and stones have changed some in shape and size since I felt them, but they haven’t lost any of their power to draw blood, real and metaphorical.)
That local gay bar was a big and noisy tent. There was room there for anyone who was “Queer,” though we didn’t use that word back then. And it welcomed everyone else too, including the boys who said they were there because they “just liked to dance” — though I have to tell you, we often thought of the boys who were there because they “just liked to dance” the same way we did the ones who told us they were bisexual: guys who just hadn’t gotten around to coming out yet. (There’s another formula that’s changed, I think.)
I don’t remember when exactly in the fall of 1976, my freshman year, that I got up the nerve to go to my local gay bar, a place close to campus called Partners. And I can’t remember all the friendships I started there –(a fair number of them lasted for longer than a night; a couple of them look like they’ll be around for last call).
I’ll tell you something I do remember though: a group of young lesbians who hung around the dance floor with tambourines, poppers, and whistles. I knew them a little from the local Wawa where they worked. I’m not exactly sure why they were so friendly to me. Maybe they could see I was a nerdy kid from far away just trying to fit in. Maybe they thought I was funny. Maybe they were just friendly. One thing’s for sure, though. They (along with anyone else who happened to be looking) could sure see I wasn’t there because I “just liked to dance”. I didn’t like to dance. And I was terrible at it. There was nothing cool about my moves. They were a hyper-kinetic cry for help rather than anything that belonged under a disco ball.
Later on, a clued-up lesbian classmate gave me the best dancing lesson I’ve ever gotten: Jeff, just make sure that everything you do goes to the beat of the music and you’ll be fine. And mostly I have been. Of course, in recent years, I’ve mostly been fine by mostly staying as far away from the dance floor as possible. Back then though, there was no staying away from the dance floor. You had to get on it to get anywhere, and at the rate I was going, I was going nowhere fast. Then one night, one of those girls who worked at the Wa pulled me over to where she and her friends hung out, gave me a hit of poppers and pushed me back on to the dance floor. I felt like Fred Astaire. Also Ginger Rogers. Also Gene Kelly. Also, other dancers of more or less historical interest — but never mind all the footnotes now. You shouldn’t talk too much when you’re dancing or look at your feet, not to mention your footnotes. (People were always telling me that.)
I don’t think it was so much the poppers that made me feel good about my moves. I think it was those girls from the Wa, with their tambourines and their whistles, cheering me into believing that however much I might feel otherwise, I had the music in me.
1. Mom mom mom mom! (Norman Casiano, a patron at Pulse, on the phone with his mother during the attack.)
On the phone a couple of days after the attack, my mother, in the state of confusion that she got into sometimes toward the end of her life, mentioned that when she hadn’t heard from me, she got worried because of what happened at that bar in Orlando the night before. I wasn’t there that night, but I wanted to remember the ones who were there and didn’t get to talk to their mother the next day, or the day after that. It helps to remember that when I was young, I used to go to a bar like that, myself.
2. “It may be possible to do without dancing entirely. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively, without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue either to body or mind,; — but when a beginning is made — when the felicities of rapid motion have once been, though slightly, felt — it must be a very heavy set that does not ask for more” (Jane Austen, Emma).
Jeff Nunokawa is a professor of English at Princeton University.
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