SIXTEEN years ago, a few days before my twenty-fourth birthday, I found myself, on New Year’s Eve, trudging through eight inches of snow with my brother on my left side and his girlfriend on my right. With each shivery step there was the ill-desired promise of overcrowded bars, all packed tight with inebriated tourists. My brother had promised me one of the five stops would be a gay bar—in Reno, Nevada, this meant rubbing shoulders with leather daddies and drag queens shipped north from Las Vegas—and that we would be throwing our twenties down at the blackjack tables after we’d consumed at least seven amber ales. Since I only had six dollars and two nickels in my wallet, I figured I’d let my brother do most of the buying.
I rested my freezing, chapped hands inside my jacket pockets as we made our way down an empty side street toward the first bar of the evening. I’d told my brother I would have what he was having, that I didn’t have much of an opinion on the matter. I wasn’t in the best of spirits. This would mark my third year in a row without a New Year’s kiss, my third year without a boyfriend. And this year I had zero chance of finding a guy, because unlike Los Angeles—where I’d lived for the past eight years and where a thousand young twinks swarm the city like a large gang of man-hungry zombies—the only cute young gays in Reno were either still in the closet or wearing enough perfume to be considered a girl with a jockstrap. I nursed my mediocre beer, way too tart for my taste, and nonchalantly spilled most of it in a trashcan before heading back out into the piercing cold.
The gay bar, inexplicably named The Saloon but nicknamed Bright Star by the Reno gays, marked the fourth stop on our invisible checklist. My brother Dustin appeared more excited to step inside than I did, as if he assumed the place would answer all fifty of his questions about my lifestyle and my daily NC-17-rated practices. His girlfriend, Kami, held my hand for a moment as we made our way inside, clearly terrified that she was going to be swallowed whole by a couple of overweight lesbians.
The darkly lit, miniscule bar had a crowd of at least a hundred people, with barely any room to maneuver and too loud an oldies soundtrack to make conversation manageable. While Dustin ordered me a gin and tonic and Kami constantly darted her head back and forth as if she had exploding electrical wires implanted in her head, I decided to fake that I was heading to the bathroom and scoped out the best homosexual talent Reno had to offer. A lot of the noticeably hungry players were older bears, all on the lookout for their sweet, virginal cubs. Some appeared too old to be out past eight on a Friday night, and others, the more promising ones that looked under forty and cute enough to share a casual smooch with, seemed to be taken. I wasn’t looking for a date. I just wanted someone to hold hands with in those seconds before midnight, someone who looked less hideous than Frankenstein’s monster and had a set of teeth that wouldn’t mortify the strangers around me. After thirty minutes of nontalking and nondancing, we departed the gay bar, Dustin and Kami holding hands, my hands becoming intimate only with the full glass of gin and tonic tucked away in my warm leather jacket.
“What time is it, Kami?” I asked, noticing that she was holding onto my brother with her left hand and texting one of her friends on her iPhone with her right. She didn’t answer me—with all the commotion on the sidewalk, I could’ve shouted that there was wet fecal matter running down her dress and she would’ve answered me with an apathetic yawn—but I managed with one quick step and a bend of my torso to see on her phone that it was a few minutes past eleven. I had never gambled with my brother before, so I was looking forward to some terrific nonsense. Plus, spending (Dustin’s) cash like crazy on the blackjack tables would be a reason to escape the frigid temperature.
But according to Kami, there was one more bar stop on our little adventure, a place so crowded with patrons that to walk from one end to the other would have been a feat akin to performing a death-defying high-wire act. As soon as I passed the portly bouncer, as well as a large sign that strictly forbade outside alcohol from entering the premises, I pulled the tall glass of gin and tonic out of my jacket and barely avoided spilling more than half of it over a group of young, giggling Asian girls.
Dustin and Kami ordered some more drinks—I told them I was good for the next three months with my extra-large hangover in a cup—and we continued to mosey on through the massive crowd. With patience and determination, the three of us made it to the back of the bar, the room extending into a large seating area where there was actually room to breathe.
“I’m gonna use the bathroom,” Kami said. “Can you hold my drink?”
Instead of handing her Peachtree Martini to her lover boy, she dropped the drink in my hands. While she strutted into the ladies’ room, I enjoyed a couple of tastes of her girly drink, a strong mix of flavors that included vodka, peaches, and orange juice.
But then I almost choked.
I turned to my left to see him.