Going to an 18+ gay club at 18 is like one of those nature documentaries where a small wombat or something finds itself drinking from the lion’s watering hole. You always feel like bait.
“Everyone here looks like an English teacher,” my best friend Colleen says, and she’s right. The dancing purple lights and grinding sounds of some Lady Gaga remix wash over a group of people who, by the looks of it, could probably qualify for the senior discount at Sizzler’s. You can almost smell the viagra in the air.
I grab Colleen’s hand and drag her through the scrum of increasingly sweaty, increasingly drunk men. I’ve been here before a couple times, thanks to the beauty of fake IDs, but never this version of myself. I’m wearing a hand-made tank top with camo pants, distinctive enough to stand out from other twinks, but also gay enough to signal to other club-goers that I’m still down for it.
We make it to the dance-floor, and I immediately feel the rumble of sound and music move through me. I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but there’s no denying what a holy sensation it is. When the glittering mirrors of light fall on you, and some diva is blasting over the speakers, and everybody around you is whooping like revival attendees, you can’t help but believe in a God that wears glitter eyeshadow and overdrawn lipstick.
Colleen shoots up her hands and dances in the heavy, awkward way she always does. I jump in time, bang my head, and let the drabness of my hometown fall off of me, get pulverized under the lights until it’s nothing but dust.
I almost don’t notice when Colleen touches my elbow.
“Bathroom!” she yells into my ear. I pat her arm as she leaves. It’s only when she’s gone that I notice the ring of older guys close to me, all of them making the most half-hearted effort to dance.
“Hey!” I shout at them. They look around, then up at me, startled gazelles.
“Yes, hi,” I continue. “Whichever one of you has the best dance moves can buy me a drink.”
Even though I prompted them, I’m still surprised when a 50-year-old with a small, swishing ponytail immediately drops to the floor and starts breaking it down. He’s more committed to the cause than I realized.
I clap my hands to the beat of the song as the other guys join in, frantically trying to prove that they still got it. Pretty soon, a small crowd is forming around us, everybody screaming and yelling as these college-adjunct-looking guys dance as ridiculously and deliriously as possible.
Someone brushes past me, trying to take in the chaos. At first I think it must be Colleen. I turn to smile smugly at her.
But the person looking back isn’t Colleen. It’s a guy—and not an old guy. Miraculously, he’s my age. Tall, Black, dressed in a simple t-shirt. He seems like the type of person who would feel embarrassed if he wore anything more elaborate. His dark brown hair is messy-cute, with curls that have refused to bow to the club’s humidity. He has a set of eyes that are distant, but dark and beautiful, like the color I’d find in the center of a black hole.
I immediately swallow my words. My own skinny body feels even slighter than usual. I wish it could disappear, because I can’t deal with the up-and-down look this guy is giving me and my dangly earring, which suddenly feels stupid. Every fashion choice I made tonight seems juvenile, facile, wrong.
“Are these guys dancing for you?”
I can barely force myself to nod.
“I guess,” I finally say. “Just trying to get free drinks.”
“That’s cool,” he says, and then we’re both silent. The Madonna song playing behind us seems as slow as a funeral dirge.
“So what’s your name?” I say. I watch the guy get jittery, those distant eyes retreating even further.
“Or not,” I say. “No names, whatever. But I’m Dean.”
“Conner,” the guy says. He looks down at the dance floor, shy.
“You want to dance with me, Conner?”
I wait for the inevitable rejection, steel myself for it. Sorry, you’re not my type, he’ll say, or, I have to leave, or, why would I want to dance with you?
“Sure,” Conner says, and all the emotional scaffolding I’ve put up to protect myself collapses like an old warehouse.
“Great,” I say, and move farther into the dance floor. Conner follows like a puppy. Behind us, the old men are still dancing.
When we get to the edge of the club, I try to remember how to move, but all my coordination has fled. I start swaying like Colleen, not wanting to appear uncool to the jock who’s somehow still talking to me.
“You come here a lot?” I ask.
“Uh, not really.” He jerks his head back-and-forth to the music. “First time, actually.”
“Well, like you can see, it’s kinda an AARP convention, but it has its moments.”
He tilts his head, like a warning. “Speaking of,” he says.
I look to my right and see we’ve been followed. The old guys don’t give up—but now they’re all glomming onto Conner, the taller, prettier, fish in the sea.
I lock eyes with Conner, and feel a jolt go through me when I realize I know what he’s thinking, that I’m thinking the same thing.
He dives back through the crowd, past the old guys, and I come trailing after him. He’s nimble and quick--the way he moves and darts between people, I wonder if he plays basketball or football or another sport I have no understanding of. He keeps going, never looking behind, confident in a way he hasn’t been before, until we both break out of the sweaty club and into the parking lot.
“I don’t think they followed,” I say. Conner nods. Without the music or the other bodies, I feel even more vulnerable.
“So…” Conner says. “What about you? Are you a regular here?”
“It’s not my first rodeo. But it’s not like, my spot.”
“Got it.” He still seems hesitant, worried. “Sorry,” he says. “I think I just feel kinda lost.”
I nod, and some of my own fear melts away. I think back to the first time I got up the courage to come here. How nervous and scared I was.
“I get it,” I tell Conner. “I can help you through.”
We stare at each other. Are we thinking the same thing? My body is jelly. I’ve turned into an invertebrate. Just do it, I think. And finally, somehow—I lean forward and do.
I touch his lips with mine, soft, warm, and then he’s against me. His big, sports-strong hand grabs my wrist. I realize God isn’t in the gay club after all—He’s here, in this depressing parking lot, among the Toyotas and Kia Souls. No other way kissing Conner could feel this good.
A voice calls out from behind me: “Dean?”
I turn, pulling away. Colleen stands in the doorway of the club, watching me.
“Colleen! Yeah, could you hang on just one minute—”
I go to say something to Conner, laugh it off, apologize for the interruption.
But when I look back, he’s gone.
“Who was that?” Colleen says. I ignore her as I scan the cars, trying to find Conner.
He’s nowhere. My stomach drops. The parking lot is just a parking lot again.