CN: substance abuse; in-community use of a reclaimed slur (d*ke)
I came to town thirsty for all that it had to offer. 2007 Portland electrified me: 3 am seagull screams, cobblestone streets, exquisite graffiti, DIY culture. Pictures of my new neighborhood, the Old Port, filled travel brochures as commodified Maine at its finest:
quaintness, lobster and lighthouse souvenirs galore; but street kids with facial tattoos intermingled with the clean-cut tourists, who watched punks spin fire and play music in Tommy’s Park. Those were the pictures that didn’t make it into the guidebooks. I loved it all.
Meandering along brick sidewalks, I took everything in: glittering Casco Bay, the historic New England port buildings, unique local businesses. With branding and signage strictly legislated, there were no billboards or big box stores to obscure the view. As I walked up Munjoy Hill, past Victorian houses, roasting coffee’s burnt cinnamon raisin toast scent traveled on the breeze with Nag Champa, salt, seaweed, marijuana, cigarettes and hops from the breweries, plus intermittent bursts of sulfur on the East End.
The summer ocean air caressed my skin, lulling me into staying awhile, but my mind drifted to accumulated cautionary tales: Maine summers reeled you in, leaving you wholly unprepared for the brutal winters. So glorious was the June weather to which I’d arrived, though, that I dismissed any sense of foreboding. Portland’s motto was Resurgam, its mascot the Phoenix, suggesting struggle but also regeneration.
Our dilapidated loft was better suited to one person or a couple with porous boundaries, but for $175 a month, I, along with Portland natives Ben and Wren, set out to make it work. The crown jewel of the space was a built-in stage doubling as a living room, a perfect set for many scenes, rehearsed and not, to play out: in a few weeks, I would bring home a cavalcade of afterpartying booze cruise revelers who blew lines off Ben’s collectible Tony the Tiger plate. Someone happened upon his beloved Devil Duckies, also collectible, and thought it would be funny to float the horned rubber ducks in sudsy water in the plugged bathroom sink. When Ben returned he was not amused, but would later find it within himself to forgive me, much like how I’d forgive him after he polished off my hummus and tortilla chips on a day when I was particularly hungry.
Portland was the friendliest New England locale I’d been to, a party town. And town is what most people called it, as opposed to the city it technically was. “Oh, it’s a small town, alright,” said Ben. “You’ll see.”
Wren coined the term “dudebro dyke” at Styxx, the gay dance club, when a middle-aged butch who emanated a cloud of cologne exaggeratedly hit on every young, femme-passing person in sight. When they turned her down, she put up a fight instead of gracefully taking no for an answer. She reminded Wren of the drunken dudebros in popped collar Polos and white baseball caps who lurched out of Wharf Street sports bars, yelling misogynist slurs. This woman seemed determined to embody several stereotypes at once. With much effort, I successfully rebuffed her—“I don’t dance!” I insisted, the ink on my Dance B.A. still practically drying.
Later, I mentioned this dudebro dyke to Ben and found out her coke addiction had spiraled her into trouble so serious she may have lost her house because of it. When I returned to Styxx that weekend we of course ended up hanging out, magnetized together as cokeheads are. It was when she procured our party supplies (that we then snorted off construction equipment outside the club) that I first encountered her dealer, Sally, better known as Sal.
Within a week of my arrival, I found myself at Platinum Plus, the local strip joint, with Sal and her best friend Steph. I rolled my eyes at their more dudebroish behavior, like declaring their “bros before hos” life philosophy on repeat, but felt drawn to their swagger and older-than-me confidence. I wanted to somehow be both a bro and a ho.
Everything about Sal was rough around the edges: scratchy voice, pockmarked skin, jerky movements. Her smile was a half-smile with only the left side fully moving, which I assumed was due to a drug-induced stroke. Her permanent coke jaw activated as soon as she got fucked up on any substance. She and Steph worked at an SUV dealership and dipped into the drugs Sal sold, bragging about going on “coke diets” where they suppressed their appetites with the stuff. They had triumphantly spiky hair and wore matching leather jackets.
Steph and I admitted that upon first seeing each other’s MySpace pages we’d declared to whichever friend was within earshot that we would fuck. I gravitated towards the citrus-mint of her scent, how she blushed when she saw me, her orderly-yet-bad-boy persona. I went home with her that night and had rough sex on her red sheets, which matched the bandana she sported in her back left pocket. We began up against the wall: I pulled her hair, she bit my face, I bit her lip. We left a trail of clothes to the bedroom.
While Steph was the one I had the hots for, I ended up spending more time with Sal, who lived around the corner from me. “Well howdy, neighbor!” she said, smiling her half-smile when I first mentioned the loft’s location. Since she hated patchouli, I brought up liking it to get a rise out of her. It worked every time—she went on comedic tirades. She would sniff me and pretend to fall down dead, yelling, “Ugh, pee-yew, ya stinky old hippie!” We shared a love of Amy Winehouse and sang along to “Rehab” while cutting lines on Back to Black’s CD case, leaving scratch marks with the straight razor.
Billie, better known as B, and I met through Sal, who introduced us one night during a transaction when I tagged along. In my perusal of the town’s queers on MySpace I’d seen photos of B and her wife, Callie, two little peas in a pod, with identical profile pictures of them at their wedding (technically a commitment ceremony due to same-sex marriage’s illegality). B was cute: tattoos, baggy clothes, baseball cap pulled over her shag of hair. Callie was beautiful, a fairy-like femme. They’d been together for seven years—an interminable amount of time for a relationship, in my opinion.
We all hung out on a triple date excursion to a Boston nightclub, with Steph driving us in her new SUV. Sal brought Tierney, a femme with an ice blonde pixie cut, and B and Callie rounded out the crew. After shotgunning a beer, B grew increasingly talkative and lit into Steph about the evils of not only driving but also selling gas-guzzling SUVs. Sal and Steph barely suppressed their laughter at B’s soapbox ascent, which I’d learn was her m.o. whenever she got drunk. Callie stayed out of it, linking her arm through B’s and kissing her cheek, a placid expression on her face. We got fucked up on the way down, on the lookout for cops but drinking beers and doing key bumps and laughing about the Gold Star Memorial Highway. I imagine this is a Maine dyke rite-of-passage and icebreaker: “So, who here is a gold star?” (For the uninitiated, that’s a dyke who’s never had sex with a man before. Turned out Callie was the only one). Speaking of sex, the tangled hookup web of passengers in the vehicle cracked me up: while Sal was with Tierney, I was with Steph, and B was with Callie, back in the day Sal and Steph had banged a few times, and Sal and Callie had dated as teenagers, claiming to be one another’s first loves.
A week since Boston, the night after the booze cruise, I tossed and turned on my mattress, wondering if I should go to the hospital, sensing the spirits of junkies who’d died in the building, not wanting to become one more. I’d consumed massive amounts of alcohol and cocaine, day to night. The euphoria and then numbness had worn off and now the poison gripped my insides.
After Ben had returned to find his collectibles defiled, the bacchanal broke up. The most committed party animals among us relocated to Sal’s for a few more hours. B was there and gave me a massage with clammy hands when I mentioned I was stressed about Steph, who’d been evasive lately.
Back in the loft with only my jittery thoughts as company, I didn’t feel right. Maybe this is it—maybe I’m dying—maybe I’m panicking—oh shit! My body temperature climbed as I sweated through the sheets. I went to the bathroom a few times, system sped up, abdominal muscles clenching. Nothing came out except weak streams of pee. I didn’t puke, but probably should’ve. In the mirror, my skin had the tint of an overcast sky, which alarmed me. Back on my mattress, my heart pounded, chest tightened with pain, arms tingled. I breathed as slowly as I could, trying to will myself back to normal. Ben, a heavy sleeper, didn’t wake up through any of this, although I considered whether or not I should rouse him. Wren wasn’t home. I fast-forwarded to what would happen if I didn’t die but started feeling worse: hospital, family finding out, forced reckoning, a new 100% clean and sober life. Finally, rock bottom. A part of me was ready to feel relieved if I lived through this. Tears burned the backs of my eyes as I silently bargained with whatever forces might spare me. I tried for measured breaths to control my body’s shaking, afraid I’d start seizing, afraid to go to sleep. Outside, seagulls circled and screamed.
It took a few anguished hours, but the vice-like doom in my body dissipated, leaving a hollow fatigue: wrecked, thankful. Afforded a second chance.
Later that morning I texted Sal, and headed over to bring her back the hoodie she’d lent me last night since the temperature had dropped and I’d been underdressed, as usual. She emerged from the bathroom, looking like maybe she’d slept there. Her apartment smelled sour. The opioid pills she’d upped her consumption of recently had caught up with her, and the withdrawals were kicking her ass. I tossed her the sweatshirt. She smiled a weak half-smile. “Better not fucking smell like patchouli!”
I told her about how I thought I was going to O.D., and for a second dizzy panic surged again, sweat beading my palms. She let out a laugh. “My little drama queen. You’re okay…” and I did feel okay, in that moment, because Sal had said so. Then she lurched forward, fist pressed to mouth, and rushed back into the bathroom. I let myself out.
B texted that she was in the neighborhood, and we took a walk to the East End Beach with its No Swimming sign. The water sparkled too brightly. Even under her baseball cap and sunglasses B’s face looked ragged, paler than usual. She recounted how awful she’d felt all night, also wondering if she would need to seek medical attention. “Dude, that stuff was bad. At one point I couldn’t even see. Callie was seriously worried. She wanted to call 911.” We had a talk then, the first of many, about how we needed to steer clear of that type of partying, how we wanted to clean up our acts.
A week after our brush with death, B became my girlfriend (or boifriend, as I’d more often refer to her) after she told me she liked me and said it would be okay if we kissed. After downing a few Purple Geezers, a drink she introduced me to at Styxx, we walked up to the Eastern Prom, where we sat on the grass and watched the blurry lights reflected in Casco Bay. That’s when it happened. I said I liked her too, she asked if she could kiss me, I objected because what about Callie? She assured me they were in an open relationship and it would be fine. I thought kissing her would be fun, and enjoyed her lips’ surprising softness, she trembled in a way that let me know she felt more than that.
Turned out it was anything but okay. B told Callie immediately, but we may as well have been fucking behind Callie’s back for how she reacted. They’d been exploring the possibility of opening things up in addition to other remedies for the long-term problems their twin flame veneer belied, but it wasn’t a done deal. It would remain a mystery whether B’s conviction that the kiss would be fine was more wishful thinking or willful ignorance. Sal, Tierney and Steph rushed to Callie’s side. At Styxx, they turned away from me, freezing me out. They chided B, but seemed open to her redemption during the brief “trying to work things out” phase that followed. When I ran into Steph on Wharf Street a few nights later and approached her apologetically, she said, “Dude, I can’t have any of that drama in my life. You need to be humble, give it time before you try and talk to anyone.” The cobblestone street only heightened this exchange’s provincial feel.
They cast me out as a pariah, a whippersnapper out-of-towner destroying a pillar of the queer community for shits and giggles. No one stopped to question the deep dysfunction of B and Callie’s relationship, the ease with which it had crumbled. I felt resentful of losing this whole new crew over such an ignorant misstep. How could these adults—and debaucherous party adults, at that—think a kiss was such a huge deal?
After all the contempt, the cold shoulders, and B moving out of their shared apartment to keep the peace, Callie ran immediately into the arms of Sal. They rekindled their love within a week. Sally and Callie.
Ben was right: this was a small town. My thirst for it had slaked; the seagull screams began to cloy.