My First Drink
It was March 2012; I was twenty-four and had just returned to the States after spending a year abroad in Osaka, Japan teaching English. The first order of business upon returning was setting up a road trip with my brother, Josh. After being back for a week, I flew out to Richmond, Virginia for a friend’s wedding and then to Chicago where I met Josh with my car. The plan from there was to explore the Windy City for a few days before making our way out to Montana where we would hang with our sister who was out there for an internship. Needless to say, I was excited to become reacquainted with my country.
The wedding was wonderful and Josh had no trouble picking me up from O’Hare. The pick-up spot was right next to the check in counter for JAL (Japan Airlines), adding another sense of happiness to an already great trip. I had booked a hotel close to the airport which had exceptional reviews, a reality failing to live up to the pictures or flowery comments. It was a hole. Set in the middle of an industrial park, we were greeted by a burned out concrete parking lot and an exterior which looked like it was built to be blown up in a Michael Bay, circa 1990s, film. It was a scorching afternoon and our excitement began to wither. As we entered the lobby, a group of young women emerged dressed the way Eastern-bloc prostitutes are in movies. They loudly chattered in an unintelligible language, pulling out and lighting their cigarettes with an Olympic synchronized swimming team precision. This gave me great pause, having spent the last year reading and researching human trafficking practices and trends. From studying the growing human trafficking phenomenon, in my mind, these were women who were clearly being trafficked by some sort of ROC (Russian Organnized Crime) affiliate. The assumptions, fueled the obvious motif of the hotel, caused hesitation, primarily because I didn’t want to start my road trip off getting stabbed or being coerced into making a friend who wasn’t really a friend. It turned out that it was a wedding party for a Czech family and I had discovered a new type of racism. Fear assuaged and a new dimension of self-loathing discovered, my brother and I made it to our room, breathing in decades of post-smoking ban tobacco stains from the dingy wallpaper.
Josh and I went into the city, had pizza for dinner, and promptly returned to the hotel. This is where our schedules diverged. He was adamant about holding his bedtime at a strict 9 PM and I was still on Japan time. Years prior, we had gone to Las Vegas and he refused to leave the room once we had settled in, perfectly content to glue himself to skateboarding videos on his laptop. Unable to keep the lights on and entertain myself, I hit the road in my car and explored the surrounding area. There were few things I missed being in Japan more than my car. It was my quite place. It was where I could think and get lost on side streets as music enveloped me. A sanctuary of catharsis, in the driver’s seat, I found peace, joy, and moments of clarity. From it, you see the landscape and people, feeling freedom as the world become increasingly accessible. Behind my steering wheel that night, music blaring at top volume, I discovered that our current location was even more desolate than I had first expected. There were abandoned lots, barred up liquor stores, and even a 7-11 blocked off by police tape. A sharp contrast to the sterile concrete suburbs of Osaka, something about the region made me feel at home.
As I drove, I thought about how to kill the remainder of my evening. Settled into my natural habitat (much like a bear in a Studebaker), I reached an unexpected moment of clarity. I decided to return to the hotel and grab a drink at the bar. This was a big deal for me. For the past six years, I had been part of a very conservative ministry and had not had anything alcoholic to drink. Alcohol was frowned upon and its consumption was treated, by many, as an inescapable pathway to hell. Having dabbled briefly in high school, finding it to only make me sleepy, I didn’t mind prohibition; it just was what it was. During my tenure with the ministry, I turned twenty-one. I had yet to experience the great turning of age moment of purchasing a drink legally in a bar. I excitedly made my way back to the bar, swelling with pride at this coming of age opportunity. The important decision now was what to order to drink. I had yet to acquire a taste for beer (something eventually gained through the upcoming NFL season) and bulk of my drinking in high school was cheap Barton Vodka with copious amounts chasers. I once had a Long Island Iced Tea, and that was delicious. That would be my poison of choice. Drink now in mind, I made my way back to the hotel and confidently walked into the hotel bar.
The bar was dimly lit and scarcely populated. Grimy from a day of travel and wearing obnoxious camo cargo shorts and a sweat tinged orange Slice tee under a black Oxford shirt, I perused the many empty tables looking for a place to quietly sit by myself. I was exhausted and felt so out of place; the last thing I wanted was any forced conversation, even though the lingering idea of meeting a cute girl (perhaps an attendee of the wedding) constantly flickered through my head. Finally in a bar! This was a new world I was both exhilarated and self-conscious about wandering into. Feeling physically gross and sharp tremors of social anxiety, I decided to grab a seat at one of the corners of the square bar, figuring I would stand out far more at a lone table. The bartender came over and I casually ordered my drink. She was in her mid-forties and very friendly, an obvious pro who was both approachable, yet clearly had no tolerance for funny business. She took only a minute to make my drink, returning bringing a 20-oz glass without ice, filled to the brim with my first legally ordered adult beverage.
Surprised by the size, two sips in, I realized that it would take me a while to get to the bottom, having not tasted alcohol in years. And this was a strong drink. A few sips later, I looked around to take in the patrons now that I felt settled. There was a group a young men to my left who were talking in hushed tones as their hands cautiously explored one another. On the opposite corner of the bar, there were two men in their early thirties making out. To my right, six seats down, there was a man in his middle forties wearing a tight black T-shirt, accentuating the countless hours he put in at the gym, and tightly cropped black hair complimented by a rich mustache which would have made 1970s era Burt Reynolds jealous. The only other inhabitant was the bartender who was whispering to Mr. Reynolds, now glancing over to me. I was so anxious about feeling like an adult and ordering a drink that I had completely overlooked the patrons. So here I was, ordering my first drink ever, in a gay bar.
Now, I’m not gay. Nor am I homophobic. Nor have I ever been remotely bi-curious. It’s never been a consideration, nor have I ever found men either sexually or romantically attractive. Don’t get me wrong, there are some men that leave me speechless and fawning incoherently, namely Idris Elba, Denzel Washington, and Lance Reddick (Oh God, please don’t read into that), but I would never classify it in a sexual way. More like the way little girls dream about princes from Disney movies. So… that said, even though I am also very comfortable in my own sexuality, I do have a mild bit of social anxiety which equates to a general dislike of any confrontation and a general disposition of people pleasing. Maybe that is an understatement. I make it a point to avoid any situation where I feel out of place, doing everything in my power to avoid any social awkwardness or confrontation. What worried me was not being hit on, but declining in a way that would cause any disappointment or cause the slightest bit of a scene. Honestly, the idea of an attractive woman approaching me made me anxious. All of these thoughts rattled around in my head as I quietly sipped on my drink hoping to finish it completely unnoticed, or at least undisturbed. Frumpy, disheveled, and for the first time in a while, I was comfortable with my Polish dockworker frame and thinning hairline. From everything television and my handful of gay friends taught me, I would most likely be left alone.
Needless to say, I was wrong. About halfway through my drink, old man Reynolds pulled up a stool next to me, inched it closer, and started speaking to me excitedly and quickly. There was no introduction. He began mid-story about some guy at a gym nearby who was ripped and apparently quite insecure. He continued to scoot closer and go into detail about how this man once spotted for him on the weight bench and had the nerve to not return his texts. Three minutes later, he took a sip of his own drink, and sighed, caustically remarking how the man’s penis wasn’t anything impressive. Satisfied with the conclusion of the story, he stirred his drink and stared at me, and adjusted his shirt, his tightly kept chest hair becoming more visible.
Halfway through the story, I had made my decision. I hated confrontation. I had no idea what he was talking about. I knew why he had approached me and was both flattered and uncomfortable. Confident in my conversational abilities, I decided my only course of action was to play dumb. I was going to be as oblivious as possible, hoping he would get the clue. Set on my course of action, I extended my hand and said, “My name’s Jonathan.”
He shook my hand and said, “Mike.”
I asked him where he was from and apparently he was just passing through. I told him I was visiting with my brother and was headed out west. I asked him about some must see places in Chicago and he obliged, visibly getting restless. He asked where we were going, and I casually said, “Montana.”
Hoping to keep the casual conversation going, I simply asked, “Where are you headed after this?”
He leaned forward and gently grabbed my wrist then said with a wink, “I’m going back to my room.”
Fully committed to my plan, I responded, “Oh, I mean after Chicago. Where are you going after Chicago?”
He withdrew his hand and mumbled, “Dallas.”
“I’ve heard Dallas is a great city. Great people. Amazing food. And one hell of a nightlife.” Instantly regretting my final point, his interest perked up again and he looked at me again, taking a quick look at my crotch, and said, “”It’ll blow your mind. You’ll never think about cowboys the same way again.”
Scrambling for a joke, and refusing to quickly down my first legal drink, he seized the silence to lean close and ask, “So, are you up or are you down?”
Thrown by the terminology, I asked him to repeat himself, which he did. Piecing the inference together from context clues, I continued the routine saying, “Well, we’re not staying on the top floor and we’re not on the bottom floor. We are staying on one of the floors in between.”
Now perturbed, he asked the question again with more force. I stammered, and finally blurted out, “I’m sorry man, I’m not gay.”
He erupted, “The fuck are you talking about? You’re not gay? You look gay!”
In full on damage control mode, I tried to consider how I looked gay in any sense of every experience or stereotype I had known. I wasn’t coming up with anything. I tried to talk him down, “I’m not gay, incredibly flattered, but I just came in here for a drink.”
He wasn’t having any of it. His inched closer and raised his voice, “Don’t you know what kind of bar this is? Don’t for a second think I don’t know what you are doing here.”
“It’s the bar in the hotel I’m staying at. That’s the kind of bar I was thinking.”
“Fuck you. Don’t play me. You are such a goddam fucking tease. You come in here, a perfect fucking bear, and you expect me to believe that you’re not gay.” By now he had given up, but he was not done making his point. He stood up, finished his drink, and slammed the glass on the bar. He exited the bar shouting, “I’ve had enough cockteases today. Fuck you. You don’t think I’m big enough? I’ve taken bears twice your size. Go to hell!”
He took a painfully slow journey to the front desk twenty feet away before complaining to the clerk in hushed tones while glancing back at me. By now, I still had almost half of my drink to finish. I stared at the remainder, doing my best to block everyone out. I had paid for it and I was going to do my best to enjoy it. It took me a little under five minutes to finish and sheepishly ask for my bill. The bartender came up and laughed. “Don’t worry about it. This one’s on me.”
I thanked her and left a ten dollar bill on the counter. Old Burt was still griping at the desk, so I did my best to quietly sneak past him on my way to the elevator. I took quick glances behind me to make sure I wasn’t being followed. I wasn’t. The elevator opened and then closed with me alone inside. I couldn’t help but double over in laughter. My first drink did not go the way I had expected, but was far funnier. Of course that would happen. Of course!
I learned several valuable lessons that night. First, when entering a bar, always check the cliental immediately. Secondly, it’s always better to be up front, and regardless of how fun playing dumb may be, it may not have the results one might expect. And lastly, sometimes, being the bigger guy (especially in a bear friendly bar) is overrated.