Thursday, June 22, 2006

When the Ice Melts

For the heck of it I sent this off to a certain southern lit magazine last year to see how it would do. No dice, but I'm still proud of it, so I thought I'd post it here.

When the Ice Melts
By Kyle T. Wilson

A few Christmases ago I got stuck in my grandmother’s house in Searcy for about seven days while we all waited out the now-legendary Arkansas Ice Storm 2000. I had just finished my first term in a very tough northeastern MFA playwriting program and I was worn-out and depressed. This trip home was supposed to be a rejuvenation, a chance to catch up with friends, and I was pretty miffed about being forced to sit indoors with very little to do except get a head-start on reading for the spring semester’s syllabus. Finally freed by the sun and the melting ice as New Year’s Eve approached, I commenced with plans to head down to Little Rock and celebrate.

As luck would have it, after a week of statewide ice-covered streets, power outages, and talk of the governor declaring the state a disaster area, the one day it looked like relief might be in sight, it decided to snow in central Arkansas. As several of my college classmates and I were gathering at a friend’s house near downtown, the stuff began to cover the roads. It stuck so quickly that the couple of parties we had considered attending were too far to drive and out of the question. We cut our losses and ended up at the much closer destination of the Capital Hotel Bar, where we found ourselves having quite the lovely evening – far better than the night we probably would’ve had at a beer party in some recent Hendrix grad’s apartment.

Six friends attended the impromptu gathering at the bar, two of whom were on a break from graduate studies. The others were all twentysomethings making it in the big L.R. Of the six of us, there were five men and one woman. All but one in the party were southern by birth; all but two were native Arkansans. And all of the men in the party were gay. At the time I was so confused about it that I. . .well, let's just say that I was in the closet. Deep. And there were two-by-fours nailed across the door. They’d been there for years.

We sat at a big table near the bar, eyeing the TV monitors tuned to “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” and enjoying a bottle of the most affordable sparkling wine the place had to offer. We feigned sophistication with a reasonable amount of success, taking great pains to impress each other with our post-college exploits. I was always comfortable around gay men (shocking, I know), and these were kind enough to put up with my ambiguity. Brittany, the token female, was playing the hag with great agility – her smartass Hot Springs voice still rings in my ears.

Eventually Mr. Clark led us all in the countdown and we squawked our noisemakers with the few others in the bar who had braved the uncertain weather. We were beginning to wind down when two rough-looking guys stumbled through the front door.

I heard mumbling. Then I heard grumbling. And then these guys were standing at our table. All conversation ceased. Our friend Kenneth – an art history PhD student who used words like “tautology” and began the evening by gleefully showing us pictures of Marcel Duchamp in drag – muttered a word of caution that one of the tough guys took as an opportunity to start something.

“What did you say to me?”

Kenneth responded with a mildly condescending, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Actually, just about everything Kenneth said was mildly condescending; even a “hello” contained a curt appraisal. Inexplicably, it was one of his most endearing qualities.

The stranger responded by repeating his question. “I said, ‘what did you say to me?’” This time it wasn’t a question, though. It was a threat.

It was at this point that I felt the need to stand and protest, to find the bartender or the manager, to do something to make these idiots leave us alone. I didn’t. It’s hard to know how to respond to that kind of behavior in public. And, all stereotypes aside, we were not a table of fighters. This was not good. Not good at all.

My instinct to take control of the situation and defend my queer brethren (I was such the one-man gay-straight-alliance, wasn’t I?) was rendered unnecessary by our brave Brittany, who, upon hearing the words that crossed the line from garden-variety harassment into hate speech, decided to take action.

“Such a shame. Pretty-looking girl like you with five faggots,” the guy said, positioning himself behind Brittany’s chair.

“EXCUSE ME?” Brittany demanded, turning to him.

He leaned down to repeat, almost whispering it in her ear. “I said it’s a shame a pretty girl like you’s gotta be wasted on five faggots.”

Let me just tell you that we five faggots were absolutely mortified at this. We watched Brittany, fearful. This could not possibly end well.

Brittany, our rock, would not be moved by this provocation. She wasted absolutely no more time on this fool, pushing him away from her. She gave him a good shove. “Would you please leave? You’re ruining our evening!”

Granted, the guy was obviously loaded, and wasn’t on the surest footing to begin with, but Brittany’s shove was such that he stumbled back, bumping into his sidekick. This fella did not cotton too well to being shoved by a woman. He responded with a gentlemanly offer that would make his momma proud. “Bitch, you touch me again I’ll slap the shit outa you!”

Brittany, God bless her, scoffed at this. I can still see her eyes roll and hear her scoff. “Oh, you will do no such thing. Go on now. Shoo!”

With more mumbling and grumbling, the fellas departed, leaving us all to breathe easy once again.

But we didn’t breathe easy. You don’t after something like that. Would we have gotten jumped when we walked out the front door? Surely they would’ve known better than to mess with five guys, even ones who were clearly better at discussing tautologies than defending themselves. Wouldn’t they? Luckily, we didn’t see them anymore that night. Maybe Brittany was the one who scared them off.

That seems like a long time ago now. Since Ice Storm 2000, I’ve come out, finished my MFA, and moved to the left-coast mecca that is Los Angeles. Unfortunately my California residency left me unable to vote in 2004 against the amendment to the Arkansas state constitution banning gay marriage. I do worry that the ten identical state constitutional amendments passed in this country could lead to more guys like my friends and me getting harassed for merely an excess of hand gestures and too much nancy in our voices. Of course even in Los Angeles, such things happen. A week after I moved to L.A., a gay actor was ambushed and beaten with a baseball bat in West Hollywood. That’s like a straight man getting bashed for being straight, well, anywhere.

Conversely, the last time I spent Christmas at my grandmother’s in Searcy, I was browsing in a local video store when I saw a perfectly domestic same-sex couple looking for a nice family movie to take home to the parents. I was heartened by overhearing their conversations, by watching them interact. They certainly didn’t need the state’s approval of their relationship. They didn’t even need a brave Brittany’s protection. And there were no rough guys threatening to disrupt their afternoon. I didn’t even see any lurking about in the parking lot as I left. I followed them out, actually, just to make sure. That’s not really true; I did follow them out, but quietly, distantly, and only to enjoy their presence a little longer. Their relationship was so public, so quotidian, so admirable. As it should be.

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