I first walked as a queer into a gay bar in the summer of 2004. It came like a nightcap at the end of a night of nightcaps. Beers at O’Rourke’s, where career drunks held their turf against slumming grad students, and where popcorn from a trash bag filled woven-wood salad bowls for free. Beers after at Nathan’s, whose back balcony one accessed through two rooms full of brick-and-board shelving holding hardcovers he’d organized by author birth year, like a procession. “It’s cool that you’re gay, man,” Nathan said. “Sucks you had to come out in Lincoln, Nebraska.” Chris and Nathan both smoked cigarettes and had had weddings. The end of the night didn’t feel like an end to the night, and The Q was only sixteen blocks away.
Did the “Q” stand for quest? Quiescence or quickening? It did not stand for Q Street, for it stood midway between M and N. A long redbrick box surrounded by parking. No windows. Five steps through the door, a line of barstools stood like open suits of armor, and there was Bud Light in bottles. The bar was another long box, expanding away from the doors to the dance floor, where all the rainbow colors tumbled over one another. The music was continuous throbbing trochees, the TV filled with muscled softcore: slicked-up pecs and teasing yanks at the beltline. Two men sat together along the bar’s left edge and one along the right. Midnight on a school night, and the bartender flirted, trying his best.
It was a night of cutpurse glances. The central question: What was a gay man? They were unclear, the requirements. One’s placement in this bar at this hour on this weeknight meant … what about one and one’s wishes? A Bud Light was either not an appletini or too obviously not an appletini. “From those guys at the other end of the bar,” the bartender said, setting down a second bottle.
The floor sank, and the walls swarmed inward. The men came over and sat on flanking stools. Everything stayed dark: black paint on the walls, high neon lights keeping patrons’ faces in the shadows. Phil introduced himself and asked most of the questions. It was the job of the wingman—campy and enormous—to provide color commentary. Are you new to town? What are you studying? One “Q” Phil never asked: How did it feel to spend life learning sports metaphors the way one hopes to learn the language of his captors? What happens when the misfit’s unfit even for Misfit Island? He was older in the way of a brother one wouldn’t’ve attended schools with, with curly mopwater hair and a face that hung like wet briefs from the line. All he had on offer was his kindness, even the whole walk home. At the doorstep he suggested a trip to the Lincoln Zoo, a pygmy mess of nothing exotic tucked in a corner of the mini golf course, and he suggested an afternoon at a going-away potluck for the faculty advisers of a gay men’s support group, where one week later men in alien shapes transmitted unintelligible conversations through the atmosphere, and the only remaining giveaway books all classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Just one man resembled the men of pornography, a sweet-natured but unconversant Latin, and the youngest in the room got covetously chastised for taking part in bareback parties. “I know, I shouldn’t,” he said, his face a golden egg.
As queerness exists at a remove (hence its name), one thing every queer suffers is that insufferable process. There’s this closet metaphor, that to name oneself is to walk into a room of warm light, but here’s another one queers ought to like: to name oneself is to draw the spotlight on one’s position in the chorus line. Who could stand to be so captured? There are no myths that honor a hero’s hard-won sameness. Straight men had made the world to win, and the mumbling dumps at this sad party, it became so clear, had elected to be the world’s losers, inheriting nothing.
Phil, unfairly, got nowhere. The guy in the next apartment over had a sleek dark body and blond hair that caught the sun no matter the weather. The sex he had several nights a week with his nerdy boyfriend could be heard through the walls, provided an ear was sealed tight against the plaster and one’s breath was held. He came over one night, months later, accepted a drink. “I think the women who used to live downstairs were lesbians,” he said. “Weird how everyone in the building was gay, huh?” No response. He leaned his skinny body back against the couch and let his knees relax. He had the quiet eyes of a cat. That afternoon, USA’d had a heavily interrupted airing of WarGames (1983), and it seemed, that late at night, a cautionary tale. “Strange game,” Joshua tells his maker at the end. “The only winning move is not to play.”