I Didn’t Know This Was a Gay Bar

(This is an excerpt from the chapter, “Hardass.” The year was 1987. I was 22 years old.)

Steve and I have gone on a few dates since the concert, but in September he returns to school and stops calling me. That’s okay. It just leaves me more time to date other men who will probably stop calling me.

Then in October, someone does call me. It’s T.J.

“Geez,” I tell him, “I haven’t heard from you in a while. I was beginning to think you don’t love me anymore.”

“I still love you,” he sighs, much put-upon. Then he says, “What are you doing tomorrow night?”

“Nothing,” I tell him. “Why?”

“I thought we could get together.”

I hang up, happy that I’ll have something to break up the monotony of the workweek.

The next evening, we meet at Maxwell’s in the Flats. For Halloween, they’ve set up a haunted house you have to go through to get to the bar.

I’m in a great mood, best I’ve felt in a long time. A light breeze is blowing and the ground is black and shiny from an earlier drizzle. The black sky has blotted out everything beyond the yellow orb of the streetlights. Perfect for Halloween.

T.J. meets me in the parking lot and I tell him not to embarrass me tonight by screaming like a girl. He rolls his eyes.

On the way to Maxwell’s, I ask T.J. how things are going with his girlfriend. He’s been seeing her since the end of the summer. She’s a redhead of course. Her claim to fame, besides being an “older woman,” is setting T.J.’s car on fire.

“Actually, I don’t know how the fire got started,” T.J. corrects me. “I just like to blame her for it.” He tells me they were on the highway, going about seventy miles an hour when smoke started pouring out of the dashboard. In a panic, his girlfriend opened her door and tried to jump out. Cool-headed as always, T.J. pulled her back in, a decision he now regrets. “I’m not seeing her anymore,” he says.

It must have ended badly because now he thinks redheads are evil. He’s dated a little bit since, he says, but he’s fed up with it, so he’s taking a break.

We get in line for the haunted house and I change the subject, telling T.J. about the calculus class I’m taking at Cleveland State. It’s not even real calculus; it’s business calculus. Still, I’m barely passing the class.

“I don’t understand any of it,” I tell T.J. as we move up in line. “I just don’t get the logic.”

“Math is the universal language,” says T.J.

“I thought sex was.”

“No,” says T.J. flatly. “It’s math.”

“Then what’s sex?”

“Something to do when you’re done with your math.” He nudges me. “We’re up.”

We step inside a foyer and pay our admission. When I agreed to do this, I must have forgotten how much I hate anything scary. T.J. must have forgotten, too, how last year when we went to see Dawn of the Dead, I was the only person in the theater to scream during the movie.

He opens the door in front of us. It leads to a hallway that’s so dark, I can’t even see the floor. Then the door shuts behind us and we’re swallowed in blackness.

“Hey,” I say to T.J. “I can’t see a thing. Where are you?”

“Over here,” says a disembodied voice. I hear him start to walk away.

“Wait for me,” I laugh. I stretch my arms forward like a Frankenstein monster and walk toward the sound of T.J.’s boots. I’ve taken approximately two steps when something horrid and filmy brushes over my face.

I give an involuntary shriek and my knees start to buckle. It’s got to be fake cobwebs. At some level, I know this. But I can’t see anything and suddenly that’s so terrifying that all rationality leaves me and panic takes over.

“Where are you?” I howl at T.J., clawing at the air with my hands.

“Calm down,” he says. I can still hear his boots thudding on the floor as his voice floats away from me.

I lunge in that direction and catch something—the hem of his jacket. “Don’t leave me!” I hang on to his jacket for dear life as we wander through a maze of black hallways, the odd ghoul popping out at unexpected moments. With each one, I scream in increasing hysteria.

The hall narrows and we’re forced to crouch down and crawl through a tunnel. I have to let go of T.J.’s jacket to do this, which freaks me out even more. By this point, T.J. wants nothing more than to get away from me, so he’s crawling as fast as he can.

“No!” I yell after him. My voice is hoarse and by now I’m half-crying. “Wait!” I grab at his foot. T.J. tries to kick my hand off, but I’ve got his boot in a death grip.

Finally, we’re through the tunnel and we emerge into another dimly lit foyer. We’ve made it through the haunted house. The door in front of us will take us to the bar.

T.J. opens it and we step into Maxwell’s. The room is warmly lit and the hum of voices envelops me like a comforting blanket. I give a sigh of relief and turn to T.J. He folds his arms over his chest and says, “Wimp.”

As penance for being such a wuss, I have to buy the first round. While I’m getting our drinks, I tell myself I’ll probably never live this down. Any respect T.J. may have had for me is long gone.

I walk back to where he’s found us a table and hand him his beer.

“You know,” he tells me smugly, “everyone in this bar is undressing me with their eyes.”

“Really?” I say. “I didn’t know this was a gay bar.”

T.J. sighs in pretend annoyance. He can’t think of a good comeback, so he just calls me a brat.

And I’m back on top again!

Later, as we settle into beer drinking and people watching, T.J. begins to talk to me seriously about life and relationships. He can see now all the mistakes he made with girls in the past. It’s shockingly out of character for him to admit to weakness like this. But even more startling is how, as he’s talking, as he’s calmly laying out his failures and regrets, I find myself respecting him more than I have in all the time I’ve known him.

I think about something Steve once said to me: that I should let people see a softer side of me. Is he right? I don’t know, can’t possibly know unless I try it. But that would be like testing the thickness of ice by standing on it. There’s no way to tell you’ve made a mistake until it’s too late.