I didn’t know there were mountains near Palm Springs. At night they loom up suddenly; massive black shapes against the dark sky, like enormous ships along a shoreline. As we round them and turn in towards the city, I look up at the digital temperature gauge above the rear-view mirror. It was at 75 degrees. Within five minutes it climbs to 85. We roll down the windows. Low, pale buildings and palm trees are rushing past us. I think of crime novels, alcoholics, crackling neon. The sandy earth in the moonlight glows like snow. My blood thrums quickly. I look out and see myself push a man up against a wall in the dark. I see a turquoise pool and someone swimming up to me in the water. I smile to myself.
Handsome had said all types, not just pretty. But in the hotel lobby cute L.A. boys are lounging together on inflatable chairs and green fuzzy bean bags. A watery light washes over them. They have made the hotel into Atlantis. Blue balloons and green vines. Giant tubes of dim light stretch towards the ceiling. We’re early. The convention committee turns to look at us. They are all cute, relaxed, confident. The fear in my belly flickers. I’m grateful they know Handsome.
The hotel surrounds a large courtyard. We step out into the warm night air. A pale blue pool and dozens of palm trees strung with white lights. An outdoor bar and cabanas and green grass and hundreds of deck chairs facing the pool. We’ve changed into our swimsuits already, and walk towards the empty pool. There are dark figures grouped together on the deck chairs, their voices murmuring. It’s the Fabulous Crew. We hug and laugh and compare travel notes. I pull off my shirt, grateful for the night sky. I dive into the warm water.
Thursday morning; registration day. Handsome and I sit out at the pool in the morning; I slather sunblock over my pale skin and watch nervously as the courtyard begins to fill with other men; tanner, bigger, smoother. Huge speakers are set up and the house music begins. I feel frozen in my deck chair.
They throw dozens of air mattresses and beach balls and inflatable whales into the water. I dive into the pool with Handsome and curl my arms around a beach ball and float in the center of the pool. The heat is intense. Around me men laugh and smile and stretch out on the air mattresses. My skin reddens slightly. Handsome is kept busy catching up with friends, and after a couple of hours at the pool I slip back to the hotel room as more and more men arrive.
Our room is on the ground floor facing the courtyard and through the blinds I can see the crowded, colorful pool. In the dark room I change into dry clothes and the fear is throbbing. I don’t like these people. I can’t talk to anyone. I don’t measure up. How the hell am I supposed to do this without getting fucked up? I look out the window at all of them and I feel regret. I wish I had stayed home. I am this close to staying in the room for the rest of the weekend.
But I don’t.
Each night everyone comes together for a big meeting; five hundred men altogether. We gather in the Plaza Ballroom; five hundred beautiful smiling men. Before us there is a raised panel table and a podium. Six people sit at the table; five of them take turns reading AA literature that is common at most meetings. The sixth is asked to share his story. A dark, handsome man my age approaches the podium. He is nervous as he speaks into the microphone.
“My name is Guy and I’m an alcoholic.”
Five hundred men reply “Hi, Guy.”
He is sweet and charming and has an adorable Georgia accent. He has come all the way from Atlanta and, like me, has never been to the convention. As he tells his story some of the shyness wears away. I am smitten and I can feel the entire room falling in love with him, especially when he mentions his thirteen-year old son. A father! His story is powerful; tracing his roots in a boisterous house full of athletic brothers, his gradual estrangement and the journey through drugs and alcohol that led to him sleeping on the streets of the crack hoods. I try to picture him there. He speaks with such warmth and passion of the work he’s done in AA, of the people who helped him and of his desire to now help others, and when he finishes the entire room lines up to thank him personally. Me included.
That night the convention organizers have rented out a nearby water park. My God, I think, will the torture never stop? But I go. The Fabulous Crew shows up at the park in bathrobes and flowered shower caps and sunglasses. They are applauded and pose for pictures. “I know them,” I say to someone.
Like everyone else I stand in line in my swimsuit, dripping wet, waiting my turn on the giant slides. I stick to Handsome like glue, self-conscious yet feeling invisible next to his big blue eyes. I see his effect on others.
There is one ridiculous, insane slide: a five-story vertical drop that curves at the bottom into a chute of water. I cannot believe they’ve built such a thing. It looks like people would die on it everyday. But we get in line, along with everyone else. And for an hour the line creeps up the staircase, hundreds of wet gay men in swimsuits laughing and cruising each other. The fear is a dull roar now; constant. I don’t know where to put my hands. Ahead of us Guy from Atlanta is waiting with his friends. I see him and we smile at each other before he turns back to this friends. For an hour my fear of the men is greater than the fear of the slide, but then we reach the top. Off in the distance I see the mountains and palm trees. I cannot believe I am about to do this. I sit at the top of the slide, water coursing over my legs, afraid to look over the edge as I wait for the girl’s signal to push off. The seconds stretch. Far below me people are watching. I hear her give me the count of three and before I can think I push off and fall over the edge, my eyes squeezed tight. I fall and fall and feel like I’m going to die and I keep falling and falling and then suddenly there’s a giant wave of water and I’m shooting through like a bullet. At the end Handsome and some others are cheering. My legs are shaking. I stumble over to them and we all hug each other like we’ve survived a plane crash. Then we turn and watch others falling. One man climbs out of the chute and looks at me. “Are you the prize?” he asks. I blush, and the others laugh. The temperature seems to have dropped a little, or maybe it’s delayed nerves. We shudder together at the end of the slide.
Later a cute man with dark skin and a hairy chest walks past and smiles at me and I smile back. I recognize him from the pool. He trots by in a red swimsuit and some of the fear drains away. In its place the excitement of flirting throbs, flickers.
Handsome and I return to the pool in the morning. The temperature is in the 90’s by 9 am, and I cool off by diving into the water. Though the fear is quieter it sticks with me. It helps being in the water. I let myself get caught up in a game of water volleyball, and at one point Guy from Atlanta joins us. I thank him again for his courage up at the podium the night before and he smiles. I want to say more but the fear stops me, and soon he drifts off.
Three hours later I am still hitting the ball around, and my left ear has plugged up with water. Life plays out around me in mono. A small thrill courses through me when I see the hairy-chested man from the water park swimming nearby. Handsome gets tired of my shyness and pushes the guy over towards me. His name is Blair but it doesn’t seem to fit him. Half Armenian and a deep voice he says is intensified by a scratchy throat. We start talking and discover we’re both writers, though he’s made a living at it through television and the Internet. We bob together in the water, talking and talking for over an hour. At one point he reaches out and rubs the hair on my chest and a minute later I return the favor. I wade closer to him until his back is against the pool wall. We hug and smile and he looks over my shoulder nervously. “I’m feeling a little self-conscious,” he says. “Can we go to your room?”
I hesitate for a split second. “Yeah”, I say. We pull apart.
“I can’t get out of the pool yet,” he says, and I laugh.
We swim away from each other but it doesn’t help. He calls to a friend on the side to throw him a towel and I see him climb out of the pool and wrap it quickly around his waist. It’s so cute it makes me laugh, and I follow him. We walk to the room and along the way we pass Handsome. I give him a sheepish grin and he laughs at me. Blair and I go into the room and close the blinds. The room is dark and the air-conditioning is on full-blast. We are shivering as we towel-off quickly. We peel off the suits. “Which bed?” he asks and I point. He gets under the covers and I’m still smiling when I join him, laying on top of him. The sensation of our skin together is amazing. The warmth spreads between us. We have fun. I watch his dark brown eyes as I kiss him, looking in them, searching for the things I don’t know. I look over at the chair and see his red swimsuit hanging there and it makes me smile.
Later the maid wakes us by knocking on the door. We dress quickly and head back to the pool. We sit together at the edge and friends of his swim up to chat. I spot Handsome in the water and he smiles at me. There is a familiar voice in my head spinning. There is a familiar boy within me, and he is still scared. He wants to be the most beautiful and the most loved. He wants the hairy-chested man to need him in a way that won’t work here. As the sun dances over the water and as the men jump and splash and the music plays out over us I try to talk the boy down from the ledge. I tell him to pay attention to the moment and stay with it. I ask him not to run with it, not to make fun in a dark room something it can’t be.
Blair and I walk to lunch nearby and eat over-priced burritos. He likes guacamole as much as I do.
“You’re soft-spoken,” he says.
He tells me he used to be an interpreter for the deaf in New York and sometimes feels the urge to speak loudly for those of us who often cannot be heard in bars and restaurants.
“She said she wants a rum and coke!”
He tells me about writing for Showtime and I tell him about the Campfire. He wants a mention and I tell him he’ll get one. He wants me to use his real name. I try to stay at that table with him, to keep the boy in place, to open his eyes to this moment and be grateful for the company. The boy struggles; he wants everyone to fall in love with him.
Back at the hotel we part company and I attend some of the workshops. I’m grateful for each one. In the dim, air-conditioned conference rooms groups of men sit together and talk, and I am reminded of why I love AA; surrounded by people engaged in self-examination, committed to giving it away to others. Like life there are those I don’t care for, but ultimately I have found more love in these strange people than anywhere else.
Handsome and I are standing in the crowded lobby that evening before the big meeting. I look around me at everyone and notice Guy in the middle of a circle of admirers. He catches my eye and smiles and I turn to Handsome.
“He’s so cute,” I say.
“Oh yeah, I forgot,” he says, “he asked me about you today.”
My heart backflips. “No!”
“Yes, he did.”
“You’ve got to be kidding. What did he say?”
“It was at the pool. First he asked me if I had a boyfriend and I said ‘no’. He thought you and I were a couple. Then he asked me if you had a boyfriend and I said ‘No, he’s single…would you like me to tell him you asked? And he said ‘sure.’”
I look back at Guy and see him smiling at me. I smile back, all goofy-like. He comes over as Handsome slips away.
“So, Michael, how much time do you have?”
This is his way of checking to make sure I’m not a newcomer. “October will be two years,” I say.
“That’s great.” There is something crackling between us. I’m suddenly sure that everyone can see it.
“You were great last night up there,” I say. “You have a powerful story.”
We smile at each other again and before I can say anything else his friends surround him.
“I’d like to talk more with you one-on-one later, if that’s okay,” he says.
“That would be great,” I say. The crowd pulls him away.
I will not lie to you. I feel lucky. And blessed. I float back to Handsome, who is standing with John, one of the convention organizers. As I join them John says, “Michael, I’d like for you to read for me at the meeting tonight.”
Another backflip. “Really?”
“Yeah. You’ll sit up at the table with the rest of us. Meet me in five minutes and I’ll introduce you to the speaker.” He walks away.
“Oh my God,” I say to Handsome.
“I told him to ask you.”
“Really?” I have been talking like a seventh-grade girl all night.
“Yeah. He asked me if I knew anyone who should read and I thought of you right away.”
“Wow. Well, thanks,” I say to him.
In the ballroom I walk to the raised panel table and meet the other readers and the speaker. We shake each other’s hands and I wish the speaker good luck. We’re asked to take the stage and as I take my chair I look out over the crowd, over five hundred men looking up at us. I see Handsome and the entire Fabulous Crew from San Francisco. I see Guy off to the side with his friends and he smiles at me. I see Blair off to the other side. My heart is pounding. I remind myself that I am reading a short piece, and it’s not about me. I breathe out and listen as some announcements are made. Suddenly my left ear opens fully and an entire symphony of noise floods my brain. The world is again in stereo, and it feels like the times I used to take Ecstasy at the clubs; as the drug kicked in the music would suddenly seem bigger, fuller, enormous. The room around me is vibrating.
“Now let’s open the meeting,” John says into the microphone. “I’ve asked Michael from San Francisco to read the preamble.”
I stand up and suddenly everyone from San Francisco is cheering. They are screaming and whistling and being ridiculous and I love it. They carry on and on and when I get to the microphone I wave to them. The entire room is smiling. I am shaking. I lean into the microphone.
“My name is Michael, and I’m an alcoholic.”
Five hundred men reply, “Hi, Michael.”
I try to hold onto my voice.
“Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for AA membership. We are self-supporting through our own contributions. AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, or organization, does not wish to engage in any controvery neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.”
It’s over. I walk back to my chair at the table and they are cheering and whistling again and I smile and pretend to wipe the sweat from my brow. They laugh.
The meeting continues, and another man tells his story. I have a hard time looking out at all of those people so I watch him instead. When he finishes, the last reader stands at the microphone and reads another selection. As he speaks I finally let my gaze settle over the room, over the five hundred men sitting before us.
“The last fifteen years of my life have been rich and meaningful. I have had my share of problems, heartaches and disappointments, because that is life, but also I have known a great deal of joy, and a peace that is the handmaiden of an inner freedom.”
I see them, all their faces, the men I know and the ones I don’t. The friends who saw me two years ago come in a broken man, who welcomed me and who were my companions, who walked with me and most of all laughed and cried with me. The strangers out there who have come together in this room on this night in this city in the desert.
“I have a wealth of friends and, with my A.A. friends, an unusual quality of fellowship. For, to these people, I am truly related. First, through mutual pain and despair, and later through mutual objectives and new-found faith and hope. And, as the years go by, working together, sharing our experiences with one another, and also a mutual trust, understanding and love- without strings, without obligation- we acquire relationships that are unique and priceless.”
As I see them I feel something inside, something around my heart break open, like a glass shell, and a warmth spreads out from my chest and it fills me up and the only thing I feel is love, love for all of them. And I understand that I don’t need to be afraid of them, of anyone.
“There is no more ‘aloneness’, with that awful ache, so deep in the heart of every alcoholic that nothing before, could ever reach it. That ache is gone and never need return again. Now there is a sense of belonging, of being wanted and needed and loved. In return for a bottle and a hangover, we have been given the Keys to the Kingdom.”
I am full, I am spilling over with something that is my friends and my mother and God and all of the beautiful strangers. I close my eyes to say thank you, and when I open them I’m no longer afraid.
From that night on I am known as “Michael from San Francisco.” They think I’m popular or something. I call it Divine Grace. I meet a lot of people. I look them in the eye. I give hugs to people I know and some I don’t. My friends see it, whatever happened. They are proud. And they see something else.
That night by the pool Guy and I talk. People rarely leave his side, so there is something critical in each moment we have alone. “Come swim with me,” he says.
We dive into the pool and have all of forty seconds alone, before the friends converge on us again. In that brief span he looks at me and in his adorable Georgia drawl says, “You’re a sweet boy.”
My friends watch. They tease me. “Look at him chase you,” they say.
I make another break-through when Tyler drags me over to one of the cabanas. There is a crowd around it and inside there are four drag queens perched on four deck chairs, painting the men’s toenails.
I get blue glitter on mine.
He had spoken of testing out relationships during his story, something that was just starting. We’re in the whirlpool together and he tells me he’s not sure where it’ll go, he’s just begun dating again. I ask about his son and the ex-wife. We’re not alone. I’m realizing his friends are very protective and watchful. From the corner of my eye I see one peer over my shoulder to see if my hands are on Guy under the water. Which they’re not.
I know we’re not going to have sex this weekend, and I know it wouldn’t be right. There is something there that needs more time. The moon is so bright the palm trees cast shadows on the grass. That night I sleep alone.
I steal the moments as I can.
My shoulders are burned. I sit at the edge of the pool with my shirt on and he swims up. He hangs onto the wall, his hands on either side of my legs.
“I don’t know what it is,” he says. “I saw you the first night and I knew I had to get to know you.”
“It’s not that I’m just cute?” I say, teasing him.
“Out of all the people here I only wanted to meet you,” he says. I glance up and see people watching. I want to tell him that I do know. I know there is something about me. I know it, I hold it dear. And I want him to know.
A song I love comes over the speakers. I get up and I dance alone. I don’t care. It’s a great song.
In the intense afternoon heat I walk with the Fabulous Crew to Jamba Juice. As we order I notice a family staring at our feet. I look down. Our toenails a gleaming array of color.
The speaker that night breaks my heart. I cry and I laugh and I cry some more. During the break I hug everyone I know. Guy kisses me in the lobby.
From the sidelines I watch people dance, watch the sweat roll from their shoulders. Blair passes, we hug and kiss. I know the songs and I dance in place. Another moment with Guy and then he’s swept up into the crowd again. Then there is a very sexy man talking to me. I know I’m not going to sleep with Guy. My body wants comfort and I tell the man I’ve got HIV. He does too. We sit in a deck chair by the empty pool and after a few minutes I let him kiss me. Is this right? Does “right” really matter, does it matter that much? I’ve got something to give away, something to share.
He drives us to his friend’s empty house at the edge of the desert. In the backyard there is a gleaming turquoise pool. We swim naked and above us the stars are so bright. He pushes me up against the wall.
I didn’t get much sleep that night.
The final meeting on Sunday morning. I want to hold onto this as long as I can. I look around me at everyone in the ballroom. I love these people. The man from last night needs to leave. We exchange numbers and he tells me he’ll be through SF soon. The sad boy inside me is quiet, content. Each of these men have given me something different, something small or wonderful.
One last moment with Guy. We exchange numbers, promises. I know I’ll keep mine.
“You’re a beautiful person,” I tell him.
“Thank you,” he says. “I’m so glad I met you.” One last kiss.
The hotel is emptying. Handsome and I take one last dive into the pool. Blair swims to me and we hug and float together for awhile. As he’s leaving I spot his name tag on the side of the pool. “Is this yours?” I ask. “Are you the only Blair from L.A.?”
“I am,” he says. “You can keep it. You were the only one for me this weekend.” Then he waves good-bye.
I don’t lie to him. I just wave back.
Handsome and I drive back to L.A. in the afternoon. There is a song I want to hear, one that he played on the way here. I find it and we sing along. It catches on the grooves of my heart and pulls it in its wake. Five hundred faces flash through my head. I think of Atlanta, of sharing my bed back home. We listen to the song again. And again.
It takes forever to get home. The car and then the plane, delayed. And delayed again. During the flight one of the attendants argues with a couple several rows back. I hear threats of police. I want to know and yet I want to hold on to what I’m carrying.
The bus to BART, which carries us under the bay and into the City. We wait for the final leg; the MUNI underground. More delays. It’s past midnight. Finally it arrives and we collapse into the side seats, the ones that face into the car. Our bags at our feet. Three stops from home a tall bearded man in a denim jacket and a firefighter’s ballcap gets on. He walks with a swagger and something else, something hard. He takes the seat nearest us, facing our profiles. I glance at him and see it in his eyes; the alcohol and the fight. He sneers at us and I turn away. But I feel him stare, feel his contempt. There’s no mistaking it. “Is he looking at us?” I ask Handsome.
“What does he want?”
“I don’t know what he wants,” he says, loud enough for the man to hear.
I turn to him. “Can we help you?” I ask.
He shakes his head slowly. “Just thinking,” he mumbles.
But it’s rolling off him in waves, the anger. He won’t look away. I want to hold on to what I’m carrying.
We pull into the Castro station. Handsome and I grab our bags and wait for the doors to open. I can feel his eyes on us. As we leave I glance back at him, at the hardness.
He bolts to his feet. “Fucking faggots!”
We walk to the staircase as he follows us. Around us are others, some gay, some straight. We take the stairs with our bags over our shoulders. He’s picked the wrong guys. I’m not scared. My pulse is quick but it’s not fear. I want to hold onto it. We rise up to the street, to the Castro’s main intersection. Around us are more faggots. The night air is cool. I’m home. When I turn back again he’s not there.
At the corner Handsome and I squeeze each other tight, and I thank him for everything. He knows what happened, he knows it matters. When he leaves I duck into the drug store. I buy a new bottle of lube. And some nail polish remover.