The first twenty minutes in line outside the bathhouse sound like thunder. The Broncos have just played—maybe won—at Mile High Stadium, and if it weren’t for a block of four-story apartment buildings we ’d be looking down on the city from the Highlands. The fireworks would be eye-level. Instead, I watch the ambient backglow of a tv inside one of the apartments across the street. Light flashes across the walls, bluish-white, bluish-rose, lightning blue, in time with the thunder sound.
I tie my hair in a bun. One of the people ahead of me in line takes out a phone, checks the score, and announces it to anyone in earshot. This person looks barely old enough to slide an ID under the Plexiglas window ahead of us—as if we’re at a bank, not a bathhouse. Or maybe it’s just the burgundy wig that makes the face underneath it seem so young. Shoulders round in a way that reminds me of lacrosse players; back not quite as broad as a swimmer’s; basketball maybe, but four inches are from strappy heels. A body I could try to name and fail.
Most of the people in line, I think, are men. On any other night, they would all be men. Or people whose IDs say “M”—the bathhouse policy as it’s always been since the 1970s. Tonight is the first time in its history that Midtowne Spa will allow the rest of us inside. But for now we’re outside. It’s ten pm and already they’re at capacity. The desk clerk in a leather chest harness has taped a laminated sign to the Plexiglas that says, ONE IN / ONE OUT POLICY AT THIS TIME. THANKS FOR YOUR PATIENCE.
Aside from myself and Sal, the friend I convinced to come to the bathhouse with me, I notice only five or six other women in a line that now winds into the darkness, the end out of sight. I had worried about what to wear, but most of the men are dressed in sweats with sneakers, some in tee shirts even though it’s chilly. Three handsome white-haired men step out from inside—one has a gym bag, one has a jacket under his arm, one is wearing khakis. They look like Paul Newman, each of them. We’re ten heads back. A guy in a hoodie invites us to play Heads Up!, a charades-like party-game app designed, coincidentally, by Ellen DeGeneres. We pass the time, the thunder has stopped, we move toward steam and sex and seeing. They’re calling tonight’s party Panorama.
I started figuring out I was gay in the early 2000s, at the end of middle school in suburban New Jersey. More specifically, I started figuring out I was gay sitting in the art deco auditorium of that middle school, watching a play in the dark. I knew I was a tomboy, and I knew that I felt far from most people. I wasn’t especially strange, just estranged in the way I imagine any young mule raised by donkeys or horses might be. The mule hurts from phantom spurs in its side though it hasn’t been kicked in a while. I hadn’t been kicked in a while. But I ’d been kicked before, by a boy I thought was my friend. I decided to stop being his friend. I decided to be more alone. In the auditorium, I’m sure I was surrounded by other kids squirming in their seats, but I remember the spotlight on stage as if my seeing the community-theater actors meant they were seeing me too, bathed in a beam, sitting so still.
Their rendition of The Laramie Project told me the story of Matthew Shepard’s death for the first time. I was ten when news came out about how he was abducted, tortured, and left to die in Wyoming; the incident hadn’t registered in my consciousness until that day in the auditorium. I imagine the adults in my life must have seen the news of Shepard’s death—sensational and true—but it didn’t trickle down to me. Maybe my mom had a subconscious knowing of the person I ’d eventually grow to be and shielded me, I don’t know. I like that idea of being legible, even in the periphery, even in my smallness.
I know that in the play Matthew Shepard isn’t actually a character—he is already murdered and already mourned. The Laramie Project is a work of metanarrative in which the playwright and his company are characters who have traveled to Laramie, Wyoming, to interview the townspeople (who also become characters) about what happened. The production I saw was pretty stripped down; there wasn’t much of a set except the A-frame of the buck fence Matthew had been tied to. For costuming, the local Laramie characters wore pearl-snap shirts, the sheriff looked like a sheriff, and the playwright character wore all black. Matthew didn’t wear anything, because he wasn’t a character, because he was already gone in the play and in real life.
I think that’s what got me. There was an absence, and the absence was gay. At that point, in the New Jersey suburbs, I knew about gay people as a concept, but not as a lived experience. I knew that Elton John was gay, but he wasn’t in my line of vision. Despite Ellen, I didn’t know how to be a gay girl, though I was. The only gay person I knew was the organist at our church, who sat frail and birdlike in the folds of his white robe and sang to his god and made the brass pipes sing to his god.
The playwright and his crew travel to the middle of nowhere, the middle of somewhere, to learn why a young man has been killed. The doctors try to save a life that can’t be saved. The townspeople reckon with what has happened. They dress as angels and sing “Amazing Grace” to drown out protestors at the funeral. A stagehand dressed in black and wearing black gloves moved the buck fence on stage in the dark.
The middle school had gathered its eighth-graders for an assembly. The teachers hushed us and so we hushed. So many people in the service of recognizing a gay life, recognizing its absence. This was a meaningful person, even if he wasn’t a person I knew. There was a gap where his life should have been. In my line of vision, there was a gap where a gay life should be. I saw the outline of it then. I saw how much devotion could be shown to a gay life. When I saw his outline, the shape of his absence, I became less alone.
When we get buzzed into Midtowne Spa, I’m handed two warm towels and the key to a locker we’ll share. The chest-harnessed attendant says we might have better luck finding an open locker downstairs, because they’re so busy tonight. And they do seem busy—men brush past us through dim, narrow corridors. None of them wears anything but a towel around his waist. The towel in my hand asks me what I’m doing in black jeans and a black button-down and a black bomber jacket—this is not how to look cool. No reason to have worn anything but sweats to be stuffed in a locker. The light is dim as a nightclub’s and Madonna’s “Ray of Light” is playing over the speakers. The layout reminds me of a travel hostel: tiny numbered rooms with cots that have been rented for the night; for smokers, a back yard with lounge chairs and a patio hot tub; an HIV-testing station next to a table of free glowing wristbands to indicate who you’re looking for (top, versatile, bottom, want male, want female, want couple, want all); a lounge room with pretzels and potato chips, modern furniture, and the only big-screen playing basic cable instead of porn—one of those home makeover shows. We follow a staff person past video booths and down a flight of stairs. He is wearing black like me and the back of his staff tee shirt says, DRUG AND ALCOHOL FREE SPA. A SAFE PLACE FOR MEN TO PLAY SAFELY.
We strip down in front of the locker, hesitant, like standing in front of an open fridge not knowing what you’re hungry for. In her underwear and bra, Sal gives me a look like, Am I doing this right? And I try to make my eyes say, yeah, but I think they say, we’re trying. She folds her bra and puts it on top of her pile in the locker, wraps a towel around her body. As much as I want to be bare-chested I don’t want to be more of a spectacle than I already am. Neon yellow sports bra instead—something of the fitness club locker room charade—and small shorts and waist towel. I can hear the moans of men playing safely. A guy in full leather chaps, jockstrap, and vest (the most clothed person I’ll see all night) gets his phone out of his locker near ours. He’s probably in his early fifties, a tall white guy with a shaved head. He looks like someone’s dad. Dungeon Dad asks if we’re having fun. Sal says we just arrived, but we’re excited. He’s excited, too.
“This has been my world for the past eleven years,” he says, cocking his head toward the moaning from around the corner. “And tonight my wife and her boyfriend get to come see. They’re still in line outside and she texted me that it’s already one-in one-out. She told me to hurry up and fuck all the guys so the line will move quicker.” I tell him I hope they get in quick. Dungeon Dad says, “Well, welcome, ladies. Enjoy yourselves,” and ducks through a passage under the stairway.
This basement level is steamy with wet floors, a bathhouse indeed. We wander through brighter tiled rooms with showers and saunas. Almost everyone is handsome and indiscernible. A little more chest hair, a little less. A little more six-pack, a little less. A little more tan, a little less. They ignore us or smile or say excuse me. So many warm white towels. Past the jacuzzi, we find a crowded maze of black-painted plywood nooks and closets and corners, lit only by the tangential light of emergency exit signs haunting the rafters. Glory holes, a deeper darkness within the darkness. Most of these hiding places are occupied with damp bodies moving together, or moving alone. Most of the men don’t mind if you watch or if you don’t watch. One corridor is so congested with people watching what’s going on in a booth that we can’t squeeze by. Some move their hands under their towels, breathing through their mouths. Among bare feet and sandals I recognize the strappy heels from the line outside. We double back, and I imagine holding hands with someone through a glory hole. My gay desire made anonymous, simplified or magnified.
There’s no way to be reflected when you aren’t being seen. Not that I’ve figured out. Back by the stairs we find jail-barred cells decked out with sex swings like black military cargo nets hammocking guys on their backs. Someone finishes fucking and someone else grabs a condom from one of the small wall-mounted baskets of condoms by the doorframe of each cell where a light switch would be. There’s no barebacking allowed. Safe place for men to play safely. I watch the toned trapezius and latissimus muscles of someone topping. He has his hair in a bun and I have my hair in a bun, and I want to think that makes us similar. But I am a guest in this house.
Sal’s fingers find mine. She kisses my neck. She is gazing in wide-angle observation, with interest and not desire, with very little riding on the way configurations of bodies imply identity. She hasn’t fucked men in a while and neither have I, because I don’t fall in love with them and I usually can’t figure out how to keep the sex gay enough to suit me. But tonight feels different, like walking through my own house in a dream. There are familiar rooms that don’t exist in waking life. Architecturally impossible.
She says, “I’m mostly just interested in you.”
And I say, “I’m mostly just gay, and gay for you.”
Around another corner in the Midtowne basement we come across a wall of murals that have probably been here since the seventies—larger-than-life illustrations of men in loincloths and PG-13 nudes where the positioning is just right to avoid explicit vulgarity. My own loincloth asks, What vulgarity? They’re as muscled as Tom of Finland drawings, but less cartoonish. We follow the mural men into a large dark room lined with benches. More mural men lean flat on the wall while real men sit on their bench laps, dwarfed. The mural men flex their biceps. One of the real men reclines on his towel stroking himself, wearing a halo—a glowing crown of wristbands he has linked together.
In the center of the room, people are having sex. This feels usual now. We sit on the corner of the bench by the doorway, by the absent light switch, and look. This is a wide angle. I think, How much must I objectify before I am patriarchy? I think, Dyke Daddy.
The Mural Man over my shoulder whispers through his paint, “You can stop thinking now.” His voice is the sound of cinderblock, his voice is decades of Windex and touch-up brushstrokes, his voice is foundation and pylon, flying buttress. He grins at me and says, “Baby, who are you calling a buttress?”
Because we’re by the door, real men pass by, and sometimes when they pass by they stop to talk.
When they say, “What do you think of all of this?” I say, “Sex is sexy.”
When they say, “Is this your first time?” I say, “It’s the first night they let us in.”
When they say, “Are you a couple?” I say, “Yeah.”
When we kiss, men stop walking by and start watching. Men brush my shoulder gently with the back of their hands. Men touch her back. I don’t know if that’s okay with her or with me, so I move their hands away and give them a squeeze in apology. Someone asks if he can join, and I say, “How about anyone can watch,” because that seems only fair. Sal seems at home in her body, chest lifted, curls pulled back. She looks at me more than she looks around the room. I lean in to kiss her. Normally I would bring my hand to her neck and pull her toward me, press our foreheads together like I am trying to let my thoughts pass from my mind to hers while our mouths move. But because of the men watching, I keep my hands in my towel lap. With all the dude-attention, making out with her doesn’t feel gay anymore—it feels like performance. After a minute we stop kissing. Someone says, “You two are beautiful,” before walking away. I’m reminded of all the straight women cast in lesbian porn to be consumed by men. The boyish self I have modeled after their gayness is bruised by evoking male desire in this girl-on-girl scene rather than stirring up the gay want they have for each other.
“I want to be handsome,” I tell Sal.
“You’ve always been handsome,” she says. “You’re the most handsome girl I know.” She says this like it’s obvious, like I should know. For the first time I feel it true in my muscles. I want to kiss her again and be beautiful together, lesbians in the gay bathhouse, everything making sense.
I have romanticized a space like this for years. Hardly any of this seems real, because it is so precisely what I had imagined. Tonight, I am integrating my particulate desires. I am undisintegrating, gluing all the pieces together with dingy dungeon stickiness and safe space. A whole self, handsome woman, my body admired in faint light, in totality. And I can’t let the sensation be anecdotal, because this night has to last me. I want to know that this house exists always, even if I don’t have a key. The Mural Man winks at me from inside his painting. “It does,” he says. “We’re open 24/7.”
* * *
I didn’t come out in high school. I didn’t date anyone until I moved to a women’s college in New York City. Freshman year, I dated my best friend, who was also my roommate. Sophomore year, I took the train to New Jersey for a new girlfriend. Junior year, I dated enough women to get mono. Senior year, I was the social chair of the queer students’ alliance and passed on my mono to others. After college, I lived in Brooklyn for a few years before moving to a no-gay-bar town in Montana for grad school.
Western Montana is staggeringly beautiful. On crisp days, there is a quality of light that feels like putting on glasses you didn’t know you needed. The summer there turns every good kid into an afternoon hedonist, wraps her arm around your neck saying everything is ripe, strips you bare with her late-season river—aching hours of forest-fire sunset colored electric cantaloupe, strawberry concentrate, every undiscovered orchid, the throat and wing of a hummingbird. After that seasonal ecstasy of Montana I moved to Denver, where the Rockies are both mountain range and baseball team. People jog in city parks and get their cars washed. Unemployment is low, condo construction is high, and white people make money off weed. I hear a lot of travelers get stuck in Denver on layovers. Halfway between Denver and Montana is Wyoming.
The summer I turned twenty-nine, I drove into the middle of nowhere in Wyoming to see the eclipse. The middle of nowhere is twenty-five miles north of Casper. On Airbnb I reserved Area 13 at Lonesome Cowboy Road, which was described as a piece of ranch land, dry and flat, with a lot of sky. I drove up through the high plains alone the night before the eclipse so I could sleep in and avoid the traffic. I knew other people who had also headed into the path of totality, but I got these ideas about solitude and being small in the face of profundity and borrowed a tent that could sleep two, but could be set up by one. The evening drive was biblical, complete with hail hard enough to make me exit the highway and hunker down in someone’s driveway by the only tree I ’d seen in miles. The pounding became rain before it became rainbow, then double rainbow over golden wet prairie.
In the dark in Casper I stopped at a gas station and ate a yogurt from my cooler. I went in to pee and heard someone ask the cashier if they ’d been busy. She was folding a brown souvenir 2017 Eclipse tee shirt, emblazoned with the silhouette of a wolf in front of the moon. She said, “Yeah, it’s been like this all day.” This seemed to be the liveliness of an average gas station on an average day, to me at least. But Wyoming is the tenth largest state by area and the least populous—it’s a large, large emptiness.
Away from I-25, the dark was thick. I found the wide dirt road, and then the narrow dirt road that was two tire tracks with brush growing up between them tall enough to scrape the underside of my car. My high beams snared long-legged, long-eared jackrabbits, scuttling to the shoulder of the road. They flashed upon something dead and run-over. They held a burrowing owl who stood its ground, playing chicken until I took my foot off the gas. As if it knew it won, it turned and lifted its wings, flew in front of me in the spotlight for full minutes. Darkness and owl leading my way.
Tent pitched, cactus stepped-on while pitching, needle through shoe pulled from foot with teeth. I settled in, had two granola bars and a tallboy for dinner. Bugs made the paranoia bug noise that itches without any actual bite. Areas 1 to 12 and 14 to Infinity made quiet campfire sounds three hundred yards off, and glowed a little warmth through my mosquito-net window. By headlamp I read a chapter of an enormous biography of James Merrill; I ’d been reading it for weeks and I was just through his adolescence. Merrill was in boarding school in New Jersey and somewhat in love. Goodnight, Jimmy. Goodnight, tallboy. Goodnight, ranch land. Goodnight, headlamp.
* * *
I wake up in the tent, sweating under August sky in a sleeping bag, long past sunrise. Camping Areas 1 to 12 and 14 to Infinity are awake and making people-sounds, some hollering. I climb out head-first and stand to see the land in the daylight—flat and arid. A horizon of pale green scrub brush, dry grasses, spike-plants as high as my shins. Air thick with dust. Not one tree. The people making people-sounds stand around their tents or sit in collapsible nylon chairs in front of their cars. It looks like there are maybe forty of us within a half-dozen acres—infinity of few. A group of them make happy noise and point. A pronghorn is on the move, kicking up a cloud at its heels. It runs until it’s a hundred yards from me. I want to know what generosity of evolution gave us this painted face like a prey-warrior in mourning, black down its nose, clean white at the cheeks, sawdust body. What genetic god said yes, can opener for antlers? The pronghorn turns itself in circles. It speeds past me in one direction and leans like a hockey player angling to a stop, then races its dirt-shadow back. This seems to me clearly just for fun and an audience, revelry in the body under the sun.
Inside the tent, I change from my pajama shorts into cut-offs. I punch the sleeping bag into its own little sleeping bag and undo the air valve on my mat. Lying on my belly, I sink with the sigh of the valve until I feel the contours of the ground pressing into me. Rainfly, tent poles, stakes, flattened tallboy, headlamp, ground tarp, tent itself—I pack it all up. People are starting to put on their eclipse glasses and stare into the sun.
Five miles back down the road I find a place on the shoulder to park my car where the southbound view is unpeopled. It’s uneverythinged. There’s a broken bottle by my feet but that’s it. I put my glasses on and watch the black edge creep. I can feel myself actively attempting to sculpt present sensation into memory. Sage-smell sage-smell sage-smell. Wind-on-arms. Grit-in-shoe grit-in-shoe grit-in-shoe. Darkening. Darkening.
The sky to the west is thick as if a storm is coming in, coming toward me. Dusk rising like a tide. I can hear anxiety restless in the insects. Then everything is moving too quickly. A sun setting in fast-forward, in time-lapse in real life. Except it doesn’t set. Instead this black-hole moon—some wrongful heir to the throne, some usurper, saying I’m in charge now. I take my glasses off.
The path of totality is dark. I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s dark. I miss the sun. I miss it like missing a parent who told us she’ll be home later, but not before we’re asleep. She said we don’t have to take baths tonight, and that’s good because wet loneliness is cold, even in the summer. I miss the sun. She kissed our foreheads before she left. She said don’t worry, as if she had never been a child. There is no light switch in this dark hallway. I want the sun.
She comes back, and it’s dawn after a sleepless night, its own kind of awakening. Draped rose and gold glow; I hear myself say wow out loud. I hear my own laugh. I think of my mom telling me, “There were years you didn’t laugh. You would hardly even smile.” I hear my own laugh in the middle of Wyoming. What generosity of evolution, what high-plains god has allowed me happiness, allowed me astonishment at my own joy?
I get back in my car and put music on the stereo. I sing. I eat chips, wipe my hands on my cut-offs. The highway is at capacity with everyone else who flooded the path. We wind bumper-to-bumper south on the interstate, which is only two lanes in each direction, except for when it’s one lane in each direction. We should be going seventy-five in a seventy, but we’re going twelve. On my phone, the expected duration of the drive to Denver keeps getting longer and longer, so I plug in a different route. Something less direct.
When I see the sign for Laramie, there is nothing else to do but take the exit. I turn into a gas station and feel that my heart is a muscle, squeezing. I want to ask someone in Laramie about the only thing I’ve known of Laramie. A person in camouflage overalls is using the microwave by a case of donuts. Two employees with painted nails, in black slacks and uniform shirts, are chatting. An older couple is studying a gazetteer. In the bathroom I ask Google instead. I try to avoid the grim death details that are too hard for right now and find details telling me where he was—where to go.
I drive to a subdivision of large houses spread far apart. The houses are new enough that the road is still unpaved. My throat is tight. I get as far as the directions can take me; the report said Matthew Shepard was found one-eighth of a mile from the intersection of two roads that dead-end into long new driveways. I get out of the car. I reach my hands over my head to stretch my back and look at the sun getting low. People-sounds. Small-people-playing-sounds. One house back, kids are running around in the side-yard by the driveway while a mom unloads the minivan. I’m walking back down the street. I’m walking up the gravel driveway; what am I doing? I am raising my hand to greet a stranger who lifted her own hand to shade her eyes, because I am backlit, the sun so low. She walks toward me, and I say, “Hi, how’s it going?”
She is wearing sandals and a flowy floral blouse under a cardigan. Her face is round and her blond hair is short with light bangs that curve across her forehead. She says, “How can I help you.” She is nervous. I imagine she can tell I’m not from here, but I don’t know why. I feel embarrassed by the hole in the canvas of my sneaker. Her kids stop to look at me. I say, “I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of where Matthew Shepard was. I want to pay my respects.” I don’t sound like myself, I sound nervous. She sighs. She’s heard this question before.
The kids go back to gliding down a long metal slide. Beside the slide is a fifteen-foot-tall metal beam structure with four swings on chains hanging from a broad metal disc—it’s a homemade half-size version of the flying chair ride at the carnival. The swings are made of old metal tractor seats.
She points past my car. “It’s on private property. That way, northwest. But yeah, it’s private property. You can’t get there without trespassing.” As I say, “Okay thanks,” a man comes around from behind the house. He is wearing a broad cowboy hat and brown University of Wyoming tee shirt. I tell the woman, “Sorry to bother you.” She says, “It’s fine” and returns to unpacking the minivan. The man is still walking toward me, and I give him a wave. A tiny child runs up behind him, and he scoops her to his chest, carrying her with one arm. He waves and asks, “Did she give you the answer you needed?” His eyes are blue like my dad’s eyes. He holds his little girl. He knows the question I asked, and he knows the answer.
I say, “Yeah I think so. Thanks.” I feel the gravel of the driveway under my feet telling me it’s time to go. Two bigger kids call to him from the top of the driveway. One is pulling himself up into the high swing chair and the other is asking to be lifted. I wonder if they know who Matthew Shepard was. I wonder if they know why people like me walk up their driveway looking for him. I wonder if, even in his absence, he keeps them company, too. The man shifts the littlest child to his left side and puts out his hand. He tells me his name and it’s a bible name. We shake hands, which is a way of holding hands. He smiles, and he isn’t nervous at all, so I’m not nervous anymore either. He says, “Do you want a ride on our swing?” and I say yes.
The kids call to him again. I follow him up the driveway and hoist myself into a tractor seat suspended so high that even my grown-up feet are off the ground. He boosts the kid who needed a boost and keeps the little girl in his arms. “Ready?” he asks. I’m ready. He grabs hold of the one empty swing and starts walking in a circle with it, then jogging. Dusty scrub land, lit up with child sounds and mourning that will not have me, pushes me into the strange arms of welcome. We start to lift and tilt away from the center as the centrifugal force builds. The motion is smooth, the air is smooth, there is no resistance. My swing pivots on its ball-bearing hinge and I am flying backwards, land falling and falling away. The kids squeal and extend their wings. I extend mine too. Wind on arms. Where am I? How did I come to be here, generous god of loneliness? Horizon in every direction, sun setting so it can rise on me.