If you gotta go, go all the way. 6A. Go till you can’t take it anymore, till you can’t go any further or farther. Take it to the tip. To where the rocky land points straight at Paris, France. The tip of rocky land where the Puritans got down on their knees. Where they begged God to scrub the dirty filthy abominations from their flesh. Provincetown. Ptown for the initiated. P for those most experienced. Some don’t mention it at all, claiming they were in Boston on business.
Tourist guides say it’s “where all the homosexuals migrate.” Just how do homosexuals migrate? Perhaps in V formation, their wings thumping happily across deserts and high seas gales in search of morsels and mates. Some say Ptown is the San Francisco of Cape Cod, without the bridge, without Chinatown and The Grateful Dead. So then, it’s not San Francisco. Other people say it’s slightly gayer than Key West. What does it mean to be slightly gayer? Can one be slightly straighter?
Straight or gay, undecided or confused, people go to Ptown because it’s not San Francisco, not Key West, and nothing at all like the Jersey Shore. Ptown, all the beach without Quick Checks, black jack, Ferris Wheels, exit numbers, or children. A place where the paint falls off the houses when you’re not looking. Wide sand without a hotel in sight. Where cars are intruders and bicycles buzz like bees. Where food is art and art is food. Where straights are welcome, dogs even more so. Where nothing, absolutely nothing is taboo except taboo. When my partner introduced me to Ptown, she nursed her nerves all the way up the Connecticut Turnpike. Thought there’d be too many bulging Speedos for my comfort. Lipstick and beards on the same face. To my surprise, I liked it in the first five minutes. No one there gave a damn if I existed. That’s vacation.
I’d returned to a certain place there from my first summer at the tip. A handsome classic hotel bar alongside a canvas covered patio that claims “approachable sophistication.” Lobster Mac and Cheese and local free range roasted chicken served within eyesight of the cabaret cue to take in Starsky + Cox or Thirsty Burlington, whom Cher says does Cher better than Cher. And at the bar is jazz. A fine piano and candles. That’s what I want. That and two slow dripped absinths and two empty chairs in the middle of 40 feet of polished mahogany. She went to powder up, I took the seat next to a big guy in a big hat.
Smash. His cowboy hat hits the rim of my glasses.
“Nice glasses, Rusty’s the name.”
He sticks his hand out, thumb up, like we’re getting ready to arm wrestle. This is not good. I lift bottles of wine for exercise. And his tattoos aren’t comforting either. A whole sleeve of snakes and devils. Painful stuff.
“Your name?” he says.
Now I like a good handshake every once and a while. It restores my faith in the pretension of sincerity. I’ll shake a dead fish tail before a bone crusher though any day. And that’s just what he does. He crushed my hand like people shell lobsters. Great! Thanks. My knuckles are throbbing before I know what this guy does for a living. I’d talked with big guys before, just never one this big. I could move but that would piss him off. Drag me down under the wharf and crush my skull. That would ruin my vacation.
“Samuel? What the hell kinda name is that?” he said. “Are ya Jewish? Can I call ya Sam?”
“Sure,” I said.
“So, you Jewish then?”
“Yes. I mean I’m no, Sam is okay. Samuel’s Hebrew. But I’m not…”
“Okay? That’s it? Just okay? Don’t fuck around. It doesn’t matter to me one bit, Sam. You don’t like Sam? How about George? Or Larry? How about that? I don’t give a shit. I’ll call ya anything, anything ya want.” He lets out a deep yelp.
I straighten my chair and think it over. Sam. People name their hamsters Sam. I hate Sam. It’s small and puny. Sam I am. Good for nursery rhymes. And it rhymes with Spam. Canned meat. But I’m in Ptown. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe the cowboy’s right. We could keep it just between the two of us. Me and the guy with the hat. Just then my partner comes back from powdering, pulls up a stool and strikes it up with two girls down the bar.
“She yours?’ Rusty says, pointing with his beer.
“Well, not exactly,” I say.
Smash. His cowboy hat again. Must have an eye problem. Blind in one maybe. Or poor judgment. Close talkers should not wear hats.
“Is she, you know, or what?” he says.
“We’re partners,” I say. “We’re mortgaged.”
“Mortgaged?” Got five. Five mortgages. Connecticut and New York.”
He leans in. The hat strikes. Nearly knocks off my glasses this time.
“My wife has New York,” he says. “Upper East Side, I don’t give a shit.”
“Really?” I say.
He leans back and looks me up and down.
“I don’t give a shit. She’s down there and I’m up here,” he says.
“Is this your first time in Ptown?” I say.
“Are you fucking kidding me? Twenty years. You can raise a lot of hell here,” he says.
“Nice beaches,” I say.
He pulls out a lump of a wallet and rifles through a wad of plastic cards.
“Hey Bartender,” he says. “Give this guy here whatever he wants. It’s on me. What are you drinkin?” He looks at me. “Bartender?” The buff barkeep has a tentative look about him. He’s seen this deal go down before. “And her there, whatever she wants too. Tell the guy what you’re drinkin there.”
Rusty doesn’t bother none to look at my partner. He hands a card off to the bartender and starts to line the rest of them up by his drink.
“This here. Look at this. Air Force. Air Force, Buddy. Lieutenant Colonel. Flew planes fast enough to take the hair off my nuts.” I didn’t want to imagine it, but sometimes images come at you faster than you can head the foul ones off. “Look at this one. Blackwater. Security Consultant, Buddy. Got some real nice guns too. M4’s, 10’s? Got some pictures here somewhere.”
So he goes on and on, bragging up his guns and ammo and sorting through his wallet, hitting my arm with every card he finds. He’s trying really hard at something. What about me tells him that he’s my type? He must know that I don’t care much about what he’s saying. Could be classified or something. Then I’ll be responsible and I’m on vacation. I notice my partner and the two girls down the bar have their heads together, chatting away and peeking at me. One has a husband, the other a boyfriend. They came out here to the tip for a little charge. “You just gotta go to the cabaret, you two,” they say. “Thirsty Burlington? Oh my God. So much fun. And every Monday there’s showgirls. Boas and more boas. The best pair of legs gets five hundred dollars. You gotta go.”
“Those are some nice glasses you got there,” Rusty says.
“Thanks,” I say, “I can work on my laptop and drive with the same…”
“I know what they are. I know exactly what they are. I’m an optometrist. I betcha paid too much I can tell ya that. I betcha paid five hundred big ones. You know what those fancy things cost me? Huh? Frames. Five. Lenses? Five. If you paid any more than fifty bucks…” He stopped and looked around the bar then back at me. “you got fucked up the ass.”
God. This guy’s flashing around his credit cards, pointing at me and shouting up rounds of nineteen dollar glasses of absinth and saying “fucked” and “ass” in the same sentence. Last night I sat in this very same seat at this very same bar and had an intelligent and orderly conversation with two men in linen slacks. We chatted up Asian furniture, jazz divas, private dunes, and weather. It rained horribly last week. “Torrents.” they said.
“You smoke?” Rusty says. He rubbed a cigarette back and forth between his fingers as if he’d just rolled some weed.
“I’m good. Just had one,” I say.
“When you get ready, we’re gonna go out there and smoke a damn cigarette, you and me.”
My partner leans in. “We’re wondering. Are you okay?” she says.
“Me? Sure, why?” I say. I smile as if I am doing just fine.
“Say the word and we’re out of here,” she says.
I sit up straight and drag the straw around my absinth. Just what are they thinking? I might look puny next to this guy but I’m no god damn pussy. I can deal with all kinds of shit. Spent years in bar and pub research. One Halloween I shaved twice, cross-dressed, put on makeup, and went out to a biker bar. Butch wouldn’t take no for an answer. I didn’t feel like dancing. So I escaped through a kitchen door. Negotiated boiling vats of onion rings and giant frying pans and mop buckets full of dangerous chemicals. I was a mile away before he paid for my Miller Lite.
The absinth is exactly as I remember, sweet and toxic anise flavored joy. The jazz singer finishes up another round of show tunes. Rusty taps his glass on the bar long after the last note. He leans away, turns back, gives me a shove with his elbow and belts out, “Are you queer?”
The bartender stops rattling a martini. Down the bar an ice cube clinks and settles in someone’s whiskey. I’d been waiting for this moment for a long time. To be honest. To say what I believe. To say, it really doesn’t matter does it? But Rusty wants to know.
“I’m straight,” I say quietly.
“Me too,” he belts.
Now the only thing the rest of the bar hears is, –are you queer — me too. Perhaps I am the only one left with a question. But a question is not the right move. Rusty doesn’t like questions. The bar returns to a hum again. I say something and turn to my partner and smile. A few minutes later I notice Rusty out on the front steps, sucking long and hard on a cigarette. My partner and I slip out the side door, down the crowded street of bicycles and boas and head to the Asian furniture store.
©2009 Samuel Saint Thomas